Mouritz Botha knew when he had to leave South Africa to further his rugby career, and when it was time to return, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.
For the majority of South Africans who make it on to the international stage, the route to the top is smooth and relatively quick – Craven Week, provincial age-group rugby, Currie Cup, Super Rugby, Springboks.
Then you get a tiny minority who get there by a road less travelled. It is an arduous journey fraught with ambushes, potholes, blind rises and detours. Only the most stubborn see it through, but for those survivors, ultimate success tastes so much sweeter. Ask Mouritz Botha how he felt when he eventually did line up for Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika as a 30-year-old. Only, he wasn’t wearing the green and gold, and nor could he sing the anthem aloud. He was, of course, in the white of England, a red rose on his chest, and he had just sung his lungs out to God Save the Queen. It was Kings Park in Durban on 9 June 2012.
‘My emotions were off the scale,’ he says. ‘There I was, a boertjie proud of his roots silently singing the anthem along with the Boks, the team I had madly supported for so long, but then belting out the English anthem. But make no mistake, I was an Englishman that day, and every other day I played for the country that gave me a professional rugby career. South Africa had given me no chance.’
Botha, now 33 and on a two-year contract with the Sharks, has come full circle. He has done a 360-degree circumference around the rugby globe. Born in Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal, he attended high school in Calvinia in the Northern Cape, where his school teacher parents had moved.The local high school remains off the rugby map. So no chance of Craven Week …
Then there was a move to Cape Town for the Stormers supporter and a number of years of club rugby for Parow Noordelikes Tygerberg Kollege. He was studying sports management at the time but had a burning desire to play professional rugby.
‘I had played hooker until the age of 16 before moving to the second row, where I played good rugby for my club, but when I made discreet enquiries as to whether I had a chance of making it to the Western Province Vodacom Cup side, I was politely told to get lost. Apparently I was too light at 105kg to make it as a provincial lock.’
So he sent his CV to more than 20 rugby clubs in England. Most didn’t bother to reply but one day he received a call from sixth-division club Bedford Athletic, not to be confused with Bedford, the professional club once coached by Rudolf Straeuli.
‘They offered me digs, a job, and would pay for my flights. It was the only reply I got, so off I went – I knew that doors were closed in South Africa, and if I was to achieve my dream of playing professional rugby, I had nothing to lose.’
In Bedford, Botha worked as an office assistant, making coffee and doing photostats. After six months he was retrenched.
‘My next job was at a carpet cleaning factory,’ he recalls. ‘From 6am to 2pm, I shoved carpets into a huge tumble dryer and then pulled them out and folded them. I moved about six tons of carpets per shift. Maybe that’s why I started to grow [his fighting weight as a Test lock is now 115kg and he is 1.98m tall]! After an exhausting shift, I would go to rugby practice.’
By now he had cracked the nod at Bedford, at the time a struggling second-division semi-pro club. Botha still had to work and his next job was with an asbestos removal company.
‘I worked there for two and a half years. It was grim! But my rugby was going well. It was a big release for me and I got stuck in.’
Which brings us to Botha receiving a call from an agent who had picked up that Saracens were looking for a lock, and that Botha was about to receive a call from director of rugby Brendan Venter to set up an interview. For a battling lock pushing 30, this was a ‘now-or-never’ juncture.
‘For two days I sat watching my cellphone. Every two minutes I checked if there was signal and enough battery. On the third day, I had given up and was outside braaiing with my wife [Natasha, who he met in Bedford during his first season in England] when the phone rang. It was Brendan. I had been granted an interview.’
Botha had a rival for the job, a Fijian international who was interviewed before him by the panel of Venter, board member Morné du Plessis and CEO Edward Griffiths.
‘I later heard they had asked him what it would mean to play for Saracens and he had only been mildly enthusiastic. But when they interviewed me, I was just about climbing over the desk with desperation. After the interview, I was sitting in my car and rocking it with excitement, and they were looking out the window at me. Apparently Morné said: “That’s your man. He wants it!”’
The story is well documented from then on. Botha excelled at Saracens and after the disappointment of being cut from Martin Johnson’s 2011 World Cup squad, he went on to play 10 Tests for England, including all the 2012 Six Nations matches. And after six years at Saracens, he turned down lucrative offers from France to return to his KZN roots. Why?
‘The one thing I have been lucky with in my rugby career is that every big decision I have had to make, I felt it was 100% right. My gut feel has never let me down. I knew I had to leave South Africa to make it. I knew I had to leave Bedford Athletic, I knew I had to leave Bedford, and I knew the time was right to leave Saracens.
‘I was looking at offers from France when I received another career-changing call from Brendan Venter, offering me a two-year contract at the Sharks. It made sense to me; I knew John Smit from his time at Saracens, I was mates with Matt Stevens, who was already there, I rate Gary Gold, and I wanted to work with Brendan again.
‘It was funny. I had been joking with the guys at Saracens about how the coaching team John was putting together would be the envy of the rugby world when Brendan called. I said to my wife, “I don’t care how much they offer me in France, I won’t take it. My gut is telling me what to do …”’
– This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine