Back in the Bullring

SA Rugby magazine finds out why Gary Botha returned to Pretoria after a stint with London Harlequins.

Gary Botha admits to feeling utterly dejected after the 2007 World Cup. He arrived at the tournament as John Smit’s hooking deputy, off the back of an outstanding season with the Bulls, and was justified in his expectation to play some role in the showpiece tournament in France.

However, the emergence of Bismarck du Plessis, coupled with an indifferent performance in a dirt trackers team against Tonga, seemed to seal his fate. He watched from the stands on that glorious October night at the Stade de France, with Du Plessis preferred as Smit’s back-up.

‘I won’t lie and tell you that it never hurt. It did. A lot,’ he concedes. ‘When you have goals and expectations that aren’t met, naturally you’re disappointed. But the team’s cause was bigger and more important than any personal agendas. Moping around the place wasn’t going to serve anyone.

‘There was a lot said about me accepting the deal from Harlequins because I felt unvalued. That’s garbage. I was 25 years old and wanted to experience playing abroad at a young age and not use it as a retirement package. I needed a new challenge and Harlequins offered me that.

‘Now I’m back because I felt it was time to move on to the next phase of my career. I watched the Bulls last year and was damn proud of them. Now I want to be part of something special with the Bulls.’

Botha’s team ethos was no doubt a contributing factor in Bulls coach Frans Ludeke’s decision to approach him to return to the union he has represented since the age of 12. The reasons for luring him back to Loftus would have been his all-round proficiency – given that he is equally adept in tight encounters as he is when the game opens up. When you consider that he is also familiar with the Bulls’ playing structures and is friends with many of the senior players, it becomes clear that he was an obvious choice to bolster the squad.

‘I loved every minute at Harlequins and I have absolutely no regrets about my time there. I grew technically and matured a lot in a personal sense. But it was time to come home to the place I love and the rugby I know,’ he says. ‘Frans sold me when he told me that he wanted me to play a part in their attempt to defend the Super 14 title. I thrive on those sorts of challenges.

‘I was also really starting to miss my family and friends, even though I made some top mates in England, and having the likes of Wikus van Heerden and Derick Hougaard [both Saracens] around helped a lot. So it was a simple decision in the end.

‘I’m here because I believe in the Bulls’ cause and I believe we can become the first South African side to defend the Super 14 trophy. I’m not naive; I know it will be extremely hard to win back-to-back titles because everyone is gunning for the champs. But if we can look back at the end of the campaign and say that we passed a test [defending their title] that only some Blues and Crusaders players can say they have, it would be special.’

Botha explains that the added demands on tight forwards in the northern hemisphere have refined that facet of his play, particularly his set-phase work.

‘People must make up their own minds after watching me, but I’d like to think I’ve returned a more rounded player,’ he says. ‘Our backs can teach the northern hemisphere boys a thing or two, but as far as forward play goes, there’s no better education.

‘But I haven’t come here as a big know-it-all who is going to sit the Bulls’ forwards down and school them in the art of forward play. That would be arrogant. I’ll offer what I can to help improve aspects of our play, but at the Bulls we learn as a collective.

‘It’s about growing as a unit, not one guy wagging his finger at the rest and telling them where they must improve. I’m here to add value, and hopefully my experience playing abroad will help in that regard.’

Botha is one of the first premier South African players to return home ahead of the 2011 World Cup, and is forthright when asked about his international ambitions.

‘I want to play for the Springboks again,’ he says. ‘I don’t hold grudges and so it’s not about proving a point to anyone. I simply love the feeling of pulling on that Springbok jersey and representing my country. I want to know what that feels like again.’

Botha, however, returns to find the route back from the international wilderness obstructed by a number of talented twos. He’ll have to negotiate the challenge of incumbent Springbok deputy Chiliboy Ralepelle, and Bandise Maku, highly rated by Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, at the Bulls.

If Botha passes that Test there’ll be further competition from the likes of Adriaan Strauss and Tiaan Liebenberg before he puts himself in line to challenge Du Plessis, who in 2009 established himself as one of the planet’s pre-eminent hookers.

‘I love a dog fight,’ Botha says purposefully. ‘It brings out the best in me and I’m sure the same is true for the other hookers in South Africa who have ambitions of playing for the Boks. My focus is entirely with the Bulls at the moment, but if I do well there perhaps I’ll get an opportunity to show that I can still play at the highest level. It’ll be very hard because there are some exceptional hookers in South Africa. But the saying is true – nothing in life worth having is easy to get.’

By Ryan Vrede

– This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine