Arno Botha chats to MARIETTE ADAMS about his time at Munster, his move to and role within a new-look Vodacom Bulls team and reveals his Springbok aspirations.
After spending two years abroad, the 28-year-old had returned to the Bulls earlier this year as one of the new acquisitions under new director of rugby and head coach Jake White.
Prior to his spell overseas, where he played for London Irish and Munster, Botha spent seven years (2011-17) at the Bulls and won two Test caps for the Springboks in 2012 and 2013, respectively. But that period of his career was also blighted with injuries, stifling his chances of becoming a household name in both the Bulls and Springbok set-ups.
In retrospect, Botha says those untimely injury niggles was needed for him to take the leap and go play in Europe to elevate his game and career.
‘I grew up while I was there; I not the guy who thinks he knows everything anymore. I always try to learn from everyone around me, that’s my mentality,’ he said.
‘It was a good time for me because I decided to look into rugby a bit more than I did when I was in South Africa. I wanted to learn more and taught myself a few new things. I actually started to like it even more, if you understand what I’m saying. I wanted to grow in it. That was my plan.
‘Professionally that was good for me. Like I said earlier, you grow up there, and see what life is about. You meet, work and connect with different people. It’s not this bubble that players are used to in South Africa, where you are just used to interact with certain people, used to certain styles of play and where you have a different way of talking to certain people. So, personally, I feel like I grew as a person there, learned how to work with all types of people and I got confidence out of the experience. That’s because I was more open to learn.’
Of course, he stayed at London Irish for only half a season before joining Munster to link up with coach Johann van Graan. Having initially signed a one-year deal, Botha signed a contract extension that would keep him at the club until the end of June 2020.
When probed on why he moved away from Munster after a string of impressive performances, Botha explained there were a great number of factors.
‘In Ireland, the Irish Rugby Football Union is in control of all aspects of the game. They decide who goes and who stays if you’re a foreigner and they basically they decided my time was up at Munster,’ he explains.
‘My contract was running out and they didn’t offer me a new one. When I signed first, I knew that it might happen. And if we go back two years, I’d still take the opportunity to join Munster on a two-year deal. It was great for my rugby to be there, but my contract ended, so it wasn’t a case of rejection. My contract expired in June 2020 and the Bulls offered me one. Like I said, it happened very easily. Jake was the motivation for me to take the Bulls’ offer and not any of the other offers on the table.’
Now that he is back at Loftus, Botha is convinced things are much different from his time there three years ago and even different from a couple of months ago before White’s arrival.
‘The biggest difference for me is the way we train and the way we handle things. It feels like a good, balanced mixed of players, just the right mix of seniors and juniors in the squad. There’s accountability that’s taken by players and management. Also the way we train, there’s good energy on the field. It’s feels like every player want to do well to make the Bulls better and to improve the guy next to him.
‘Jake is a smart guy, who’s been around the block. He’s been at a few clubs and made a lot of changes at those clubs. My thing with him is he knows exactly what he wants in a squad, in his players and in his coaches. Wherever he has been to, he has made a success out of it; that’s one of the things I’m most excited about. He’s open-minded and knows what he wants, so he is not going to change to go and do what everybody says he should.’
Given his age (28) and experience of playing internationally and overseas, Botha is one of the senior members in the current Bulls squad and excited by the prospect of a mentorship role at Loftus.
‘If there is something more the coaches want me to do, I’ll do it. I’ll give advice and give a certain tips on rugby, but in any rugby set-up today there are so many coaches who’ve worked with players from a young age that I think players are generally quite good at what they do and understanding of their roles. But when I see something, I’m not going to keep quiet. It’s enjoyable for me to spot something and to help someone.’
Having just returned to the Bulls following his participation in the Green vs Gold Springbok Showdown at Newlands this past weekend, Botha believes his selection was an indication that the door on his Test career is not completely shut.
‘It was an honour to be part of the Bok showdown. It’ll always be a privilege to be selected in any national squad or group. It’s been a while since I’ve been involved in a Bok set-up of any kind, but I’ll never lose hope of playing for South Africa.’
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images