Botha’s got no fear

Arno Botha tells SIMON BORCHARDT that he has put his nightmare injury run behind him.

You made your Test debut against Italy at Kings Park in June 2013. When did you hear from coach Heyneke Meyer that Willem Alberts was injured and that you would be starting rather than coming off the bench? How did that affect your preparation?
Heyneke told me just before the captain’s run on the Friday that I would be starting. While Willem’s injury was bad news for the team, I was excited for the opportunity to make my Test debut [in the No 7 jersey]. It didn’t affect my preparation much, because I knew I would come off the bench at some stage during the game and had mentally prepared for that.

What do you remember about the 67 minutes you spent on the field that day?
I enjoyed every moment of it. I played a physical game and felt really fit, that I was never going to get tired. I gave away a penalty for a high tackle early on, when I was still quite pumped up and emotional, but apart from that I was pleased with my performance.

You ruptured knee ligaments five minutes into the next Test against Scotland in Nelspruit. How did it happen and did you know it was serious at the time?
A Scotland player tried to step me, and as I moved to tackle him my left foot got stuck in the ground. I tried to follow him, my foot slipped and my knee ligaments ruptured. It was the first time in my career something like that had happened to me, so I didn’t think much of it initially. But the knee was sore and unstable – I couldn’t walk – so the team took me off.

That knee injury ruled you out for the rest of the season. How tough were the next seven months for you and what did your rehabilitation programme involve?
I’m a Christian, so I relied on God to give me the strength to deal with it. I also had the support of my girlfriend Emogene – who’s now my wife – friends and family. The rehabilitation programme initially focused on improving the stability of the knee, and ensuring it healed as quickly as possible, through physio and massages. You start off very slowly, by just contracting the muscles in your quad, and after two weeks you try to walk without the crutches. Then you attempt to stand on one leg for a moment, and after six to eight weeks you try to stand on an exercise ball. After five months, you can do heavier gym training and start running again, and after seven months you can start stepping. Once you pass all the strength and fitness tests, you are ready to play again.

You returned to the field for the Bulls in a pre-season match against the Stormers in February 2014 only to injure the same knee. How difficult was it to go through the same rehabilitation process again?
I can’t describe how I felt, knowing I would have to go through it all again. You work so hard to get back and then you injure the same knee in a pre-season game. And it’s not just seven weeks out of the game, you’re told you won’t play again that season. Once again I relied on God and the support of my girlfriend, friends and family. I also spent a lot of time with Jannie Botha, the Bulls mental coach. I would call him when I was feeling down and he would give me advice and tell me to stay strong. I still wanted to play rugby so I focused on staying positive – I’m a naturally positive person – and the things I still wanted to achieve in my career. In June that year, I went to the US to see Gavin MacMillan, the president of the Sports Science Lab, and trained with him for three weeks. I was also inspired by players like Jean de Villiers and Pierre Spies, who had come back strongly from similar setbacks early in their careers. They did it, so why couldn’t I?

Your bad luck continued when you suffered a pectoral muscle injury in the Bulls’ first game of the 2015 Super Rugby season against the Stormers.
Yes, but I wasn’t too upset about it as I was only ruled out for three weeks and my knee had been fine during that game. I played a few Vodacom Cup matches on my return and was then selected to play against the Crusaders [the Bulls’ sixth match of the season] only to tear a hamstring the Thursday before the game and be ruled out for another three weeks. When I came back again, I was 100% fit, and played in the Bulls’ remaining [eight] games, but I didn’t feel as good as I had at the start of the year. I then tore cartilage in that left knee, in a match against the Canon Eagles in Japan just before the Currie Cup, and was ruled out for four weeks.

You started seven of the Bulls’ last eight Currie Cup matches at No 8. What was it like to finally string some games together?
It was great to be able to build some momentum, and not have any injuries or niggles. I know I’ve had a lot of injuries, but I don’t focus on them or worry about what could happen. That allows me to play without fear.

So you didn’t hold anything back in this year’s Bulls’ pre-season match against the Lions in Polokwane?
No, I play every game to the full. If you’re holding something back in a game, you shouldn’t be playing. The way coach Nollis [Marais] approached that match was very professional – he said this was our time to show him that we wanted to play for the Bulls and why he should pick us for Super Rugby.

What are your personal goals for the 2016 Super Rugby season?
Goals are important to me, because I need something to work towards. I want to be a leading player for the Bulls and mean something to the team on and off the field. Obviously I would like to be selected for the Springboks again, but I’m not too focused on that. If I can play to my potential in Super Rugby then the rest will take care of itself.

Do you prefer to play No 7 or No 8, and how difficult is it to switch back and forth between the two positions, as you did in Super Rugby last year?
I’m happy to play where the team needs me. It’s not that difficult to switch between the two – the attacking lines and folding on defence don’t differ much – but it’s nice to settle in one position.

– This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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