Former England lock Mouritz Botha has faced many challenges in his rugby career, but helping to “make Germany great again” after the country’s footballers crashed out of the World Cup in Russia is the most unusual.
Botha is Germany’s rugby forwards coach and like his players, was asleep in Apia in Samoa when the defending champions failed to make the knock-out stages in Russia sending the nation into meltdown. Now, attention turns to the rugby players as they bid to grab the sporting headlines back home by winning the first game of their two-leg Rugby World Cup qualifying playoff with Samoa on Saturday.
Samoa and Germany are trying to earn the right to join Ireland, Scotland, hosts Japan and Russia in Pool A of next year’s tournament and while the Pacific Island nation has a proud history in the Cup, the German rugby team are attempting to make history by securing a place at the top table of the sport.
The second leg takes place in Germany on July 14 and the loser will progress to the Cup’s reperchage tournament in November. The qualification process was mired in controversy when Belgium, Spain and Romania fielded ineligible players in the Rugby Europe Championship and had points deducted and that led to Germany beating Portugal 16-13 to earn this double header.
The German players made a 14,500 mile trip via Doha and Auckland to Apia for the match and took around 40 hours to complete the journey. Botha, who won ten England caps while at Saracens, told RugbyPass from Apia: “The guys didn’t watch the match live and it was the first night everyone got a good night’s sleep after getting over the jet lag. It is now up to us to make Germany great again! The guys have not been affected by the football result and we have travelled, probably, as far as you can go to play a Test.
“We have only brought 24 players to Samoa and so we can’t risk overdoing it in training. World Rugby pay travel costs for that number of players along with six staff which is all that is possible.”
Botha and the German players face a Herculean task, not only because they face a fiercely physical Samoan team in 30C heat, but also the fall out from the loss of funding following Dr Hans Peter Wild’s decision to end all financial support. Billionaire Wild was told he could not have his two clubs Stade Francais and Heidelberger RK in the European Challenge Cup because of a clash of interests, leaving the German club without a backer.
As a result, Botha and 15 of the 24 players representing Germany in Samoa will no longer be employed by Heidelberger RK, one of just two professional teams in the country, and face an uncertain future with the former Saracens lock saying: “I don’t have a job in two weeks’ time! Dr Wild has pulled all funds from the club and we are trying to relocate players to different teams because our livelihoods have been taken away. We are trying to find a new backer for the national team and, hopefully, I can find a new club coaching role and I am based in the UK.
“As a national team, we have faced a number of challenges including the Wild Academy guys deciding to go on strike in November in an attempt to get a deal sorted with the Union. Now, we are dealing with Heidelberger RK not being allowed to play it the Challenge Cup, but each time the boys have come through and delivered. It has been a long, emotional season. I have had many highs in my career and helping Germany qualify for the Rugby World Cup would be fantastic.”
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has ensured a fiery encounter by stating that Germany has “no knowledge whatsoever on how to play rugby, so we must win this game.” Given that Heidelberger RK was founded in 1872 and the sport didn’t reach Samoa until the 1920’s his knowledge of game’s history around the World is patently flawed.
Samoa have not won a Test match since November 2016 which only adds to the pressure on the home side particularly as Tuilaepa – who is also the chairman of the Samoan Rugby Union –told the national team; “you have no guts.”
Botha is aware of the Prime Minister’s harsh words about German rugby and his own players but does not believe it will be a major factor in the final build up. “They haven’t had the best run and are under pressure,” said Botha. “It is always tough, physical and emotional to play the Islands nations, but, hopefully, we have the right game plan to defuse their energy and to get our tails up.
“I don’t think the players from either side are taking the Prime Minister’s comments too seriously. The return game on July 14 is planned for Wiesbaden and you have to get the mentality right for both games and the majority of out squad played in the Continental Shield which involved home and away matches. You could view it as a four quarters but it is simpler to just think about winning two matches.”
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