‘England is my home now’

GAVIN MORTIMER speaks to Saracens lock Mouritz Botha, who made his Test debut for England earlier this month.

There have been Borthwicks and Bottings, and plenty of Boltons, but until now a Botha has never before played for England. Step forward Mouritz Botha, a burly second row with blond locks and an accent that is more Juan Smith than John Smith.

Botha, all 1.98m and 115kg of him, is the latest foreign-born player recruited to England’s ranks, joining the likes of Hendré Fourie, Dylan Hartley, Shontayne Hape and Matt Stevens in the 45-strong preliminary World Cup squad. Team manager Martin Johnson will jettison 15 of the party when he announces his final 30 at the end of August, but Botha is in with a good shout of making the trip to New Zealand. With Bath’s young oak Dave Attwood injured, and the veteran Simon Shaw showing signs of wear and tear, Botha has the pace, skill and power to suit England’s style.

If Botha does make England’s World Cup squad it will be an astonishing climax to a story that began 29 years ago in Vryheid in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

‘My mum and dad are teachers and Dad coached rugby so I used to go to training with him as a kid,’ explains Botha. ‘But I never took rugby that seriously. I played a lot of cricket too and I suppose I realised rugby was taking over when I started sacrificing cricket practice in the early summer for rugby.’

A hooker in his salad days, Botha was shunted back a row when he turned 16 and started sprouting. He’s been in the second row ever since, joining the NTK (Northerns Tygerberg College) club in Parow (alma mater of, among others, Danie Gerber and Corné Krige) and rising through the junior ranks until he played for the 1st XV.

‘By 2004 I was just out of college working as the manager for the Western Province league of In2Touch,’ recalls Botha. ‘It was a full-time job and even though I could go training with the club on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I wasn’t getting the time to go to the gym and do weights. I wanted to play for Western Province in the Vodacom Cup but was told I was too light and small.’

Botha decided he needed a change of scenery, so at the end of 2004 he fired off e-mails to a dozen or more clubs in Europe and awaited the response.

Only one replied, the semi-professional Bedford Athletic of the English National League Three.

‘They offered me a job, flights and accommodation. It was a time when a lot of South Africans were going to play in Europe and I just thought it would be a good opportunity to focus on something different,’ says Botha, who arrived in England in October 2004.

Botha soon felt at home in Bedford – a town in the English Midlands overshadowed in rugby terms by the likes of Leicester and Northampton – even if the rugby wasn’t quite what he expected.

‘The standard was probably a step down from what I’d been used to but Bedford Athletic told me there was another club in town, the Bedford Blues, who were in National Division One and coached by Rudolf Straeuli. It was my aim to play for them.’

Botha spent two seasons at Bedford Athletic, a time he looks back on with fondness. The rugby may have been average, but the rest of his life was good (he met his wife, Natasha, in Bedford) and he went through a series of colourful jobs, from carpet washer to hazardous waste operator.

In September 2006 he joined the Bedford Blues, no longer coached by Straeuli but still boasting a strong squad with ambitions of reaching the Premiership.

‘The rugby at the Blues was of a much better standard,’ says Botha. ‘Before that I didn’t have much idea of defensive patterns, planning a couple of phases ahead of the set piece, and that sort of stuff. So I looked and learnt and in my first season at Bedford I didn’t make many starts.’

Not long into the 2007-08 season, Botha was a regular feature in the Blues’ pack and he ended the campaign as the club’s Player of the Season. His form hadn’t gone unnoticed by the big boys in the Premiership either, and a few clubs made discreet enquiries about the big South African who always wore a blood red scrum cap.

‘Nothing came of it until 2009,’ says Botha, who by now had been approached by a rugby agent. The agent soon fielded a call from Brendan Venter, then director of rugby at Saracens, who wanted Botha to trial for the London club. ‘But my agent told me to be strong and say, “It’s either a full contract or nothing”.’ A compromise was reached and Botha attended an interview in which he sat trembling before the might of Venter, Morné du Plessis, a Saracens board member, and the club’s chief executive Edward Griffiths. Nervous he might have been, but Botha pressed the right buttons and within minutes of leaving the interview he was phoned by Venter with the offer of a contract.

Botha had always wanted to play in the Premiership but the moment he signed for Saracens he set the bar even higher.

‘My goal changed immediately to wanting to play for the England team,’ says Botha, adding: ‘I told one or two people but they just laughed. They didn’t think I was serious.’

But he was, and at Saracens he had the perfect environment in which to chase his ambition. Not only did the club have Venter, one of the most intelligent and insightful coaches in the English game, they were also in the throes of assembling a strong and talented squad. Botha arrived at Saracens at the same time as Schalk Brits – a pair of South Africans who found themselves playing alongside Derick Hougaard, Neil de Kock, Wikus van Heerden, Frik Venter and Brad Barritt. One newspaper mockingly rebranded the club SAracens. To which Venter replied: ‘We speak English at Saracens. We don’t speak Afrikaans.’

In fact, the man Botha packed down beside when he made his Saracens debut was the then England captain Steve Borthwick. Botha has the athleticism and ball skills that Borthwick can only dream about, but if you want someone to put in the hard yards, Borthwick’s your man.

‘I’ve learnt a lot from him and my game has developed in areas where he is stronger,’ says Botha. ‘I’ve become a more balanced player.’

Botha sprang to the defence of Borthwick in only his third match for Saracens, a feisty affair down at Gloucester in which the England captain was set upon by Frenchman Olivier Azam. Botha stepped in, throwing a punch the way of Azam, and probably in the process gaining a nod of approval from Martin Johnson. Of course the official line is that Johnno doesn’t condone any foul play, etc, etc. But in reality the England manager – never averse to taking matters into his own hands during his own playing days – has been searching for hard men since he took over the job in 2008. Ever since England’s World Cup-winning generation were put out to grass there’s been a shortage of tough-as-boots forwards. Botha isn’t a dirty player, but nor is he one to turn the other cheek.

In May 2010 Saracens met Leicester in the final of the English Premiership at Twickenham. For Botha it was the biggest occasion of his rugby career, playing in front of 80 000 fans in a showpiece event, and though Saracens lost they returned 12 months later to face the same opponents. This time they won – the club’s first silverware in 13 years – and Botha was outstanding. To no one’s great surprise he was named in the Premiership Team of the Season (along with Brits, Barritt and Jacques Burger) and then came his call-up to the England Saxons squad for June’s Churchill Cup. Botha played in the impressive win over Tonga, topping the tackle count and hitting the rucks with thunderous force, and was equally eye-catching as the Saxons thrashed Canada 37-6 in the final.

The day after that victory Botha was named by Johnson in England’s preliminary World Cup squad, eligible on residency grounds. The reporter who dared ask why the England manager had picked foreigners before homegrown players received one of Johnson’s knee-weakening stares, before being informed: ‘They are all English players. They are all qualified to play for England.’

Botha is sanguine about the whole business, acknowledging that there may be some English fans who disagree with Johnson but that nonetheless:

‘All over the world people migrate from one country to another in all walks of life. I’ve moved to England and I consider myself a product of the England rugby system and I’m proud of it … England is my home now and I’m not sure I want to go back and live in South Africa.’

Botha says that he’s received nothing but encouragement from family and friends back in South Africa.

‘My parents always believed I could play at the highest levels and they’ve supported me so much. So have my friends. They’re a little surprised that I am where I am but they’re really pleased for me.’

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue – a 260-page World Cup special – will be on sale from 24 August.