x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Mouritz Botha: From Freedom to England lock

Through spirit and devotion, Botha tells Paul Radley, how he left his homeland and is now vying for a Rugby World Cup place with his adopted country.

Mouritz Botha has already played for the Saxons, England’s second string team, and is now hoping to step up to the full international squad in time for the Rugby World Cup.
Mouritz Botha has already played for the Saxons, England’s second string team, and is now hoping to step up to the full international squad in time for the Rugby World Cup.

Standing at 6ft 6ins (1.98m) tall, weighing in at 18 stones (114kg), and with a dazzling shock of long blond hair, Mouritz Botha should not having any problems getting noticed.

You would be surprised.

"The other day I got recognised at the kiosk at Thorpe Park," the England Saxons second-row forward said, before adding a bashful rider, "But that was by a Sarries [Saracens] fan."

In the hunt for recognition, the local theme park seems like a nice place to start. Next time, though, maybe it will be the England manager.

Botha has already caught Martin Johnson's eye a couple of times, first as the bedrock of the Saracens side that stormed rugby union's English Premiership last season, then in the engine room of England's second-string Saxons side.

To call it belated appreciation would be an understatement. At 29, Botha is making the latest of late charges at international rugby.

As recently as three years ago he was still working full-time, keeping jobs as diverse as carpet washing and gutting houses of asbestos, to supplement his rugby.

Now part of the England World Cup training squad, he has every reason to wonder how he got here.

"Five years ago there were goals which I had, and this must have seemed a million miles away," Botha said, still looking slightly starry-eyed in the surrounds of England's immaculate training base at Pennyhill Park in Surrey.

"There were moments when I was thinking, 'I'm 26, am I actually going to get that opportunity? Will people still want to have a look at me when I am 27 or 28 having not played at that level?' I was really lucky to get that opportunity.

"I was playing at Bedford [Blues, a club in the division below the Premiership] and I always felt I could play at the highest level.

"But you have to prove to people over and over and over and over that you can do that to be able to get the opportunity to do that."

The idea of having to prove himself is a recurring theme, and one which strikes a chord with the manager, Johnson.

Botha's name is a strong clue to the fact he is one of a group of overseas-born players aiming to represent England at the World Cup, and the scanner is always on the country's rugby nomads.

"People don't understand talking about our guys born abroad," Johnson was quoted as saying last week.

"They've got to come in and prove themselves like anyone else. It's what you do and who you are, not particularly where you're born."

Botha has been shaped by his journey from Vryheid, a coal-mining and cattle-farming town in KwaZulu Natal whose Afrikaans name means "Freedom", where he was born, to where he is today.

After being released by Western Province in 2004 on account of him being too small for a second-rower, he decided to try his luck abroad.

The only side who would give him a hearing were a small, part-time club struggling in the fourth tier of English rugby.

His stay with Bedford Athletic was relatively brief, but it was the foot in the door he needed. From there he joined their better-known neighbours, the Blues, then hit the big time with Saracens.

"I might have joked with one or two of my mates that I would play for England one day, but it didn't actually become a set goal until after I joined Saracens," he said.

"After the first pre-season I spoke to a psychologist and said that if things went well for me and that happened, it would be a brilliant achievement for me."

Given his itinerant recent past, Botha found the perfect home at Saracens, a club which placed as much of a premium on life skills as rugby ones.

Brendan Venter, the former Springbok who was the director of rugby at Saracens when Botha signed, encouraged his players to enrol in further education.

He was once quoted as saying: "We are a club which says: 'We want your studies to interfere with your rugby.' It will make them much better players."

When Botha joined the Venter revolution in 2009, full-time rugby was still something of a novelty for him.

He decided he had spent enough time on the extra-curricular stuff already, and concentrated fully on rugby, instead. "I wanted to focus on rugby and I think it was the right decision at the time," he said.

He does have a release, however, designing clothes. He has designed shirts for his Saracens teammates in the past and he hopes to set up his own clothing label at some point.

For now, though, he has a more pressing focus: the small matter of an international debut and a Rugby World Cup. "It is a massive opportunity," he said.

pradley@thenational.ae

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