After a career-changing stint with Munster, Arno Botha returns to South Africa with a determination to play for the Boks again, writes MARIETTE ADAMS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Two and a half years after leaving Pretoria to explore career opportunities in Europe, Arno Botha has come home. After signing a two-year deal and undertaking to contribute as best he can towards Jake White’s ultimate goal for the Bulls, the former Junior Springbok captain is back at the union where he made his name. Back at his team.
But while his career had not followed its projected path, the detours – which took Botha through the doors of London Irish in England and Munster in Ireland – have ensured he’s come full circle.
‘I gained so much in my professional and personal life while I was overseas. I grew up while I was there and matured in ways I hadn’t expected to,’ Botha tells SA Rugby magazine.
Endorsed as one of the next best bruising loose forwards fresh off the South African production line in the early 2010s, young Botha bulldozed his way into the Bulls fold and then into coach Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok squad. However, he was limited to only two Test caps in 2013 as he was struck by injuries, which included rupturing his knee ligaments just minutes into his second international appearance.
Growing increasingly frustrated with his dire injury situation, Botha had agreed to a deal to join Ulster at the end of the 2017 Super Rugby season, but the Irish club revoked the contract due to the player’s injury-prone state. By then, he had spent more time battling injuries in rehabilitation than he had on the rugby field.
With his career in limbo, London Irish threw Botha a lifeline by offering him a six-month deal from January 2018. It was his rise in stock over that period that earned Botha a lucrative offer from Munster, as per instruction from their new coach Johann van Graan, who had just replaced Rassie Erasmus.
‘From my time with the Bulls and South Africa I have first-hand experience of what Arno is capable of. A physical ball-carrier and lineout jumper, he leads by example with his work rate, commitment and physicality,’ Van Graan said at the time after he was accused of taking too big a risk on a player whose body could seemingly desert him at any given time.
For Van Graan, though, the gamble paid off handsomely. Blessed with an injury-free run, Botha scored eight tries in 43 appearances for Munster across the Pro14 and European Champions Cup. It was a decent statistical return, given his past struggles, but it has to be said that his overall contribution and value to the Munster back row can’t be measured in obvious metrics. He revived his career at the club and repaid the faith shown in him with one lionhearted performance after the other.
‘My determination was never in question, I was always determined. Before, I was just in the unfortunate position that my body couldn’t hold up long enough to give me an extended run of opportunities. At Munster, I gained psychological, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual maturity, compared to when I was at the Bulls where it was difficult physically and psychologically because of those injuries. I was young, inexperienced and perhaps a little overeager to prove myself and make a mark, so those setbacks took their toll on me.
‘Joining Munster was the turning point in my career. I played two years there with no niggles and that’s one of the biggest blessings for a rugby player. Playing there boosted
my confidence and gave me the momentum I needed to take my game to the next level. It’s a chapter in my life I’ll remember fondly. I don’t want to make it sound like a big deal, but it was definitely one of the best things that could have happened to me.’
It was on the days when he thrilled at Thomond Park when those with a vested interest in South African rugby would have been left wondering what might have been had Botha worked through his pain and frustrations and stayed at the Bulls, or at least in the South African system.
It is now evident that White was not one of those pondering ‘what ifs’. He was marvelling at what could be if Botha returned to his old stomping ground. A polarising figure within the global rugby fraternity in general and within the South African rugby landscape in particular, White was unveiled as the Bulls’ new director of rugby and head coach earlier this year, much to the chagrin of some and the delight of others.
But it was his overhaul of the Bulls squad and his recruitment strategy that caused a stir. The Bulls bid farewell to 15 players from the franchise and instantly replaced them with more established individuals, of which nine – Botha, Duane Vermeulen, Morne Steyn, Nizaam Carr, Jason Jenkins, Marcel van der Merwe, Gio Aplon, Juandre Kruger and Travis Ismaiel – are capped Springboks.
In a short time and during a global pandemic no less, White assembled a type of galacticos roster, a policy that has created silverware expectations of the Bulls. And according to Botha, White sold them that dream when he campaigned for their signatures. The Bulls badly needed something to shake them from their slough; White’s recruitment strategy, at least, was a sign of ambition.
‘I returned to South Africa for a one-week visit in March, but then the virus reared its head and the hard lockdown was imposed and I stayed here. I was on the farm when Jake made contact,’ says Botha.
‘Considering I had several offers on the table from clubs across Europe because my contract with Munster was due to expire in June, I had no plans to come back home permanently. But Jake shared his plans for the Bulls and the vision he had for the team and that clinched the deal for me. He convinced me to give myself another chance on home soil now that I’m healthy and injury-free and that a two-year stint at the Bulls made the most sense for my career.’
‘I won’t say there’s more pressure on us than there is on any other franchise just because of our recruitment this year. There are a lot of young players in our squad and by bringing in the players he did, Jake made it clear he wants to win trophies. We’re now a balanced squad who just need to believe in the plan.’
For all the criticism and doubts surrounding White’s Bulls, the prospect of having Botha, Vermeulen, Carr, Marco van Staden and Ruan Steenkamp as back-row options, is undeniably exciting and means Loftus will be home to a high-class loose-forward contingent for the first time since Pierre Spies, Deon Stegmann, Dewald Potgieter, Danie Rossouw and Pedrie Wannenburg were at their peak.
Admittedly, Botha’s motivation to succeed in his second stint in Pretoria, stretches far beyond just aiding the Bulls rebuild.
‘It was a massive honour for me to be part of the Green and Gold Bok showdown. The last time I was involved in a national squad of some sort was in 2016 with the SA A team and before that it was 2013, when I played for South Africa, so it’s been a while.
‘But I’ll never lose hope of playing for the Springboks again, it’s the reason I still play rugby, it’s why I train. I want to add to my caps, but it’s also about much more than that. It’s about finding out if I’m still good enough to play Test rugby again and if I deserve to be there.
‘That’s what’s milling around my head. I don’t want to be there because I’m seen as a charity case. I need to be there because I’m good enough and because the team can benefit from my involvement.
‘There’s so much competition and that makes it exciting because there’s someone like Pieter-Steph du Toit, who is the best player in the world, guys likes Siya Kolisi, Vermeulen, Kwagga Smith, Jaco Kriel, Carr, and so many others who I can mention.
‘If I had stayed in Europe, I would have resented the fact I had not given Springbok rugby another shot. I spoke to coach Jacques Nienaber and he said any one of us can kick open the door to play for the Boks. And that motivates me because it means there’s a chance, even if it is an outside chance.’
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!