Kötze’s home away from home

Daniel Kötze, a former Vodacom Cup player, is making the most of his time in France, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.

Hindsight, they say, is a wonderful thing, although that will be of scant consolation for Clermont. In December 2015 it was announced that they were parting company with Kötze at the end of the 2015-16 season. The general consensus in Clermont was that the Frankfort-born tighthead prop was surplus to requirements and it would be best if he moved on.]

That was no problem for Kötze who, much as he had enjoyed his five seasons at Clermont, wanted more game time, having slipped down the pecking order at the Stade Marcel-Michelin. So he duly signed a two-year deal with Castres, effective from July 2016, and then, lo and behold, Clermont’s regular tighthead, Georgian powerhouse Davit Zirakashvili, suffered an injury at the start of 2016.

Kötze stepped in and played so well that he was named in the Top 14 Squad of the Season, as chosen by rugby newspaper Midi Olympique, beating off tighthead competition from the likes of Nicolas Mas, Census Johnston, Rabah Slimani and Sekope Kepu. In nominating Kötze, Midi Olympique couldn’t resist a gentle dig at Clermont, saying that Castres ‘have perhaps pulled off one of the transfer coups of the season in signing Daniel Kötze’.

Kötze has brought his form from last season to Castres, and his eye-catching performances are one of the reasons the club – one of the smallest financially in the Top 14 [its budget of 20-million euros is 10-million smaller than Clermont’s] – was sixth in the table at the start of December.

‘The infrastructure at Castres is different to Clermont’s,’ explains Kötze. ‘We have everything we need here, but it’s more basic. At Clermont they have invested a lot of money in state-of-the-art facilities, even using drones in training, but at Castres it’s more modest.’

What they also had at Clermont was an array of world-class coaches with vast experience, and Kötze credits one of those men, scrum coach Didier Bes, with transforming his game last season.

‘Didier worked with Georgia for a couple of seasons and then joined Clermont after the 2015 World Cup,’ says the 29-year-old Kötze. ‘He really brought on my game in terms of scrummaging technique and has helped me evolve. That’s one of the good things about being a prop: you are always learning, always looking to improve your technique. I’m 29 but I still think of myself as a work in progress.’

Not that Castres are lacking in top-class coaches. The head man is Christophe Urios, who masterminded Oyonnax’s rise from the semi-pro ranks of French rugby to the Top 14 and even a season in the European Champions Cup.

‘Christophe actually approached me in 2011 when I left Aurillac, but I decided to join Clermont,’ says Kötze, who signed for the second division Aurillac in 2009 when he arrived in France from South Africa.

‘He contacted me again in 2015, not long after he had become coach at Castres, and I thought “why not?”. He has a good reputation and I was looking for a new challenge and a fresh start.’

December 2015 was a challenging month for Kötze in more ways than one. Not only did he agree to join Castres but his wife, Marisa, also gave birth to their first child. ‘Fatherhood is great,’ he says, with a deep chuckle. ‘Castres is a good place to raise a young family. It’s not a big town and we are about a 10-minute drive from the centre. It’s calm. It’s farming country and actually makes me think of my home in Senekal.’

Kötze’s father is a veterinary surgeon in the town, just to the west of Bethlehem in the Free State, and he also owns  a farm. And now so does his son, right next door. ‘It’s small at the moment – we have 100 cows – but I want to build it up for when I finish rugby,’ says Kötze.

With his rugby commitments, plus the logistical difficulties, the Kötzes return to South Africa only once a year, arriving in June and dividing their time between Senekal and Douglas, in the Northern Cape, where Marisa’s family farms.

Nonetheless, Kötze manages to indulge his passion for farming even thousands of miles from the Free State.

‘When I played for Clermont I became good friends with a local Charolais farmer, and he took me to the auctions and showed me how the French system works,’ says Kötze, who was so determined to master the language he taught himself the basics before leaving his home country.

‘At Castres my neighbour is a cattle farmer and he’s introduced me to other farmers, and even some of the local butchers. I’ve been trying to get them to make biltong!’

Kötze’s roots in his native land are deep and strong, despite the fact he left South Africa as a raw 22-year-old in 2009, having played a handful of Vodacom Cup games for the Cheetahs. He’s even been capped by the French, just the once, on the June tour to New Zealand in 2013. Kötze came off the bench in the second half of the first Test, which France lost 23-13, and endured a tough initiation to the rigours of international rugby. France coach Philippe Saint-André didn’t call on Kötze again in the remaining two years of his reign and thus far there is no sign that Guy Novès will give him the chance to win a second cap.

‘If you are given the opportunity to play Test match rugby you say “yes”,’ reflects Kötze. ‘But the tour came at a difficult time and I think, in hindsight, I wasn’t ready to play Test rugby. Yet all that aside, it was still a good experience and it gave me a better perspective of where I was as a rugby player. I still have ambitions of winning more caps but I’m happy with where I am in my career and I don’t think too far ahead.’

Kötze certainly comes across as a man content with his life. He’s playing good rugby at a strong club, he lives in a beautiful part of France, and he and his wife have a bouncing baby boy. If only the local butcher knew how to make biltong, then life would be perfect.

– This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine