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FEATURE Max Williamson: How Glasgow's 'Bakkies Botha' has come of age

Max Williamson: How Glasgow's 'Bakkies Botha' has come of age
2 weeks ago

Max Williamson has acquired a nickname which says a lot about the way he’s been going about his business. ‘Bakkies’ is a homage to the skull-cracking, terror-inducing Springbok leviathan of yesteryear bestowed upon Williamson by his South African coach, Franco Smith. Nearly a decade into retirement and 44 years old, Bakkies Botha remains the beacon against which all second-row enforcers are measured.

Williamson is 21, a public schoolboy and champion of the Glasgow Warriors chess club – you can almost feel the red-blooded Afrikaner bristling at the comparison. No matter, the Scot’s rugby does his talking and recently, it’s had plenty to say. The nickname is a byproduct of Williamson’s pre-season muscle gain and penchant for the trench warfare of life in the tight five.

“’Bakkies’ has stuck,” he laughs. “I’d gotten a bit larger over the off-season so it was ‘Bakkies’ trying to add some weight in the scrum during a session. Franco had wanted me to work on my physical development, to get a bit larger so I can implement more physicality into a game against bigger people. I went from 117KG to 122-123KG. It makes all the difference. All the things a second-row does, having more good weight just helps those actions.

“There were elements of Bakkies Botha’s game you’d want to take – I’d spend a lot of time on the sideline if I implemented everything – but his physicality, nobody was like that at the time, and obviously being horrible to people. It’s a privilege to be compared to him in any way so I won’t complain.”

Williamson began the season unused by Glasgow and unheralded by the Scottish rugby public. He will end it his club’s breakthrough player of the year, with invigorating experience of knockout rugby and, more than likely, a spot on Scotland’s summer tour of the Americas. He made his debut off the bench against Benetton in November and, between January and April, started eight games on the bounce while being called in to train with Gregor Townsend’s Six Nations elite. It’s been a rise faster than the original Bakkies’ famous temper.

At just 20, Williamson was sent on loan by Scottish Rugby last season. He served a three-month apprenticeship in the dark arts with Doncaster Knights in the notoriously abrasive English Championship.

We all knew things weren’t going well for us and we were trying to do our best but we are not equipped to fix the problems.

“I struggled last year,” he says. “Our squad strength wasn’t what it is now and if we were not doing well, it’s very difficult for coaches to vary the team. They’re going to put out their best side every week.

“That loan was brilliant for me. I learned so much from playing older guys, in a very physical league for young forwards. It’s not the quickest, but boys are going out there to try and hurt you. You either sink or swim. I loved it and I got loads of game time.

“If there were more opportunities for Scottish guys who have just come out of Under-20s to go down and play 15-20 games and then come back and reintegrate it would be helpful. Maybe three or four from each team every year. But if the A teams are providing a large number of games, we probably wouldn’t need to do that.”

Max Williamson has become a regular fixture in the Glasgow Warriors engine room (Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group/Glasgow Warriors)

The union is still grappling to find the best model for its hugely vilified player pathway. With only two pro-teams, substantial pressure on their coaches and less churn among the top dogs, Scotland’s youngsters often find URC minutes are at a premium. The semi-professional SuperSeries is being scrapped and some combination of fixtures for Edinburgh and Glasgow A sides slated in its place. The hope is, those matches provide a better standard of competition for those making their way. Currently, too many burgeoning talents are playing too little rugby, and at too modest a level.

Prospects are emerging, no doubt, but they are frequently ill-prepared to cope with the physical maturity of their rivals in the Under-20 Six Nations. Williamson played 14 times for the age-grade side and never won a match.

“We all knew things weren’t going well for us and we were trying to do our best but we are not equipped to fix the problems,” he says. “It is tough but you have to learn from that situation. You’ve got to try and ignore or at least understand people are going to be frustrated but they don’t know the full picture, they are not in with you. It wasn’t a big burden on me.

It would only be two proper sessions at Scotland and if you mess it up, you move on.

“Getting as much time as possible in the professional environment was the most important thing for me. That’s where people have made the biggest developments. We are going the way of Ireland with people coming through younger. I don’t know what the A games will look like but I think it’ll be really good to get as many high-quality games, younger guys playing with older guys. That’ll be really helpful.”

Smith has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to back youth. Euan Ferrie, Alex Samuel, Ben Afshar, Angus Fraser, Gregor Hiddleston and Duncan Munn have all been given opportunities this year. He nurtured aspiring Boks on a shoestring at the Cheetahs and blooded a chunk of the Italian squad who have smashed Six Nations hoodoos.

Williamson seized his opportunity. He has been involved in all of Glasgow’s Champions Cup matches, starting their last-16 shootout with Harlequins at the Stoop, and will play off the bench when the Stormers rumble into town for a URC quarter-final this weekend. He has also appeared on Townsend’s radar and sampled life in an international camp.

“It’s different because you’ve got a lot less time and a people coming from a lot of different places you have to bring together. We’ve got a lot more time during a week here at Glasgow, we’ll get up to five full training sessions where we can nail everything. It would only be two proper sessions at Scotland and if you mess it up, you move on.

“You’ve got to be so much more clinical. We are clinical at Glasgow by the end of the week because we have so much time. With Scotland you have to be on it and know your detail straight away, and be so ready. You had to adapt to that.

Williamson is honing his set-piece craft as he targets a spot on Scotland’s four-Test July tour in North and South America (Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group/Glasgow Warriors)

“My set-piece work around the mauls is a strong part of my game. I’m still working on my carrying. You need to be able to make your tackles and be very efficient at all the rucks. Scrums are massive as a tighthead lock, I get Zander Fagerson speaking to me a lot, and that’s a huge part of it.”

There’s a psychological side to all of this too; the Scottish tendency to get a bit snatchy when the jaws of victory loom. Glasgow have dazzled since Smith’s arrival two years ago, a team who can win in with the brawn of their maul or the elan of their backs, but they have no tangible reward for their growth. The Warriors were neutered by Tom Jordan’s red card against Munster in last year’s quarter-final and flopped in the Challenge Cup showpiece. This time around, they could not kill off Quins with Joe Marler in the bin, a three-point lead on the scoreboard and 15 minutes to play, and a Champions Cup quarter-final was torn from their grasp.

Glasgow have won home advantage in the last eight again. The Stormers showdown is a blockbuster draw, dripping as the visitors are with beef and flair and world champion pedigree.

“We pride ourselves on physicality and we’ve got to at least match them,” Williamson says. “Our set-piece has got to be on it. Our maul has been a threat. We’ve had the Challenge Cup final last year, the quarter-final against Munster, and then Quins – we have to take what we’ve learned from those experiences. Often it comes down to winning small moments which can be the difference between us getting through or not. This is what we’ve been preparing for the whole season.”

Springboks in town; juggernaut pack; stakes through the roof. A good time for Bakkies to come to the fore.


1 Comment
jacques 16 days ago

No bigger compliment than being compared to Bakkies.

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