Funny how it all works out. When Arno Botha jumped on a flight out of Ireland in early March, his return home to South Africa was meant to be fleeting. Just a week’s break was all that had been pencilled in, some catching up with family and friends before heading back to see out the final few months of his contract with Munster.
He never made that return trip. The pandemic shut the lid on the Irish rugby season. Then came the South African lockdown and an April phone call from out of the blue while he was on the farm, biding his time while the world readjusted to the new normal of social distancing, mask-wearing and all the rest.
Jake White wanted a word on the other end of the line. When he hung up, Botha wasn’t entirely convinced he was ready to turn back the clock, rejoin his old club in South Africa and put an end to the restorative European adventure that has been the saving of his previously injury-riddled career.
However, the more he thought about it the more it made sense. Come home, have a second go with the Bulls, the club he grew up supporting, and see could that yawning gap back to 2013 and the last of his two Springboks caps be bridged.
So far so good is the glowing verdict. Not only were the Bulls crowned Super Rugby Unlocked champions before Christmas and will look to seal a first Currie Cup title since 2009 in the coming weeks in South Africa, but back row Botha was also part of the Springboks for the October training week that culminated in a trial match in Cape Town. Awesome.
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“It’s definitely better being here with your family and people that you are used to, people that you can see yourself with in the longer term,” he told RugbyPass, reflecting on how he has gone from living in Ireland to back home in South Africa at a time when the world has shut down.
“You know you’re close to your family, close to friends. In that way, it’s obviously a bit better but it wasn’t the way I wanted to end my journey at Munster. I can’t take anything away from that club, but it is awesome to be back and everything is healthy.
“The move back was a headache because we only came home for a week, left everything there. So back for a week and the lockdown starts in Ireland and then it starts in South Africa. I haven’t been back to Ireland since March last year and JP (Ferreira) packed up my house on that side and then RG (Snyman) moved into that house.
“I have to give CJ (Stander) and Chris (Cloete), JP and Jean (Kleyn) and Johann (van Graan), everybody there the thumbs up for that because they helped me quite nicely to move my stuff here. But it’s very good to be here and enjoying every moment of it.
“We were at my mum’s place,” he continued, recalling where he was when that fateful call came from White asking if he fancied another twist at the Bulls. “I knew I wasn’t going to sign back with Munster, I knew that already in December 2019, so he [White] called me and gave me the plan he has for the Bulls and what he wants to do.
“I’m from the Bulls, from Limpopo which is up north, so it would be good for me to be back with the Bulls and I can always go back to Europe again afterwards. After that call I also said I might not go back to South Africa, I want to stay in Europe for seven years.
“But I thought, ‘Well, it might be worth it and give it a go. We’re in a pandemic so I’m also quite lucky to get this opportunity’. That isn’t the only reason I took it. I also believe in the plan they want to do with the Bulls.
“It’s not like my hand was forced. There were a few clubs in Europe but they started to go quiet because of the pandemic, so the timing was perfect. I obviously talked to Johann about it because he is a guy you can take advice from.
“I said, ‘This is the situation I’m in. I know I’m not going to go back to Munster. What do you think? Was it a good idea to go back to the Bulls and go with Jake?’ He said yes and Jake is a world-class coach who knows what he wants and he can bring something together from nothing. He is well on his way here to doing that at the moment.”
The Bulls used to be quite the attraction, a global brand that packed out Loftus Versfeld with its all-star roster. Botha was a fanatic. Even now his memories of camping overnight outside the ground on successive weekends as a 17-year-old to get tickets for the 2009 Super Rugby semi-final and final wins over the Crusaders and Chiefs remain vibrant.
“I remember all of that,” enthused Botha, recalling a giddy time from his life as a teenager in South Africa. “We’d come to Loftus and would be painted blue. Just wear some shorts, a helmet with horns, flags… in 2009 we slept in front of Loftus on two Sunday nights to get tickets. Guys would camp in chairs, have a party and enjoy the time there waiting for the Bulls to open at 8 o’clock on Monday morning. That is why it is a place close to my heart, a place I would always want to be.”
It’s why White’s blueprint for rejuvenation was music to Botha’s ears when the call initially came. “He said he wanted to win trophies, wanted to make the Bulls the best brand, a world rugby brand like it was from 2007 to 2010. He wanted to get back to that with the players he wanted to bring in and if you look at his history he can do that with a team.
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“He made a lot of semis and finals in a few different teams. Even when he was at the Sharks, they were very good also. So he knows how to work with players and how to put something together. That gave me energy, but just the way he talked about what he wants to make the Bulls work and make the Bulls a world-known brand again, that was good enough for me.”
White has had a marmite reputation over the years – people either love or hate him with little middle ground. Botha is enjoying the experience. “Everybody is not going to like everybody. What I like about him is he is a straight shooter. If he wants to use you he will use you. If he doesn’t want to use you he’s not going to use you. He’s not going to waste your time.
“He’s honest and open about what he wants. It is a hard thing for some players – maybe you have disappointed him and he isn’t going to pick you again, he will say that. You just need to have the courage to go to him and ask what is the next step for me and will I get another chance.
“Sometimes that is what is missed (with coaches and players), we don’t communicate. We have Dr Henning (Gericke), a mental coach who helps a lot because he has worked with Jake for a long time. You can always go and talk with him. He will tell you this and this happened and give advice on how to manage that.
“I’d say at the moment most of the guys are happy with him [White], even though some guys don’t get picked. If you don’t get picked it’s not because he doesn’t like you or if he puts you on a bench, it’s not because he doesn’t like you. It’s just he is seeing something in someone or in someone else and wants to take a look at that and he backs that, so that’s it.
“If you think about it, you can’t be angry at the coach if he doesn’t pick you. If he didn’t ever give you a chance you might have an opinion about it but if he gave you a few chances and he is not happy with what he sees you both can just part ways. But he is also the type of guy that will try to help you with another place. He’s not just going to leave you in the dark.”
That sounds encouraging, not only for the Bulls but for South African rugby in general as their main teams prepare for the new Rainbow Cup, the precursor to their involvement in the Guinness PRO16 after leaving behind the old Super Rugby structure involving New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.
“More unions will see what is happening at the Bulls and will do that, try to bring back players from overseas and make rugby in South Africa even better,” reckoned Botha. “That will also make the Springboks better. It’s not just older guys coming back, but these guys have been good.
“If you look at Morne (Steyn), he’s 55-plus I think (35) and he is still playing very good rugby. I spoke to Willem Alberts after the Lions game and he’s still making big hits and playing 80. He is 36. Those guys are doing well and can mentor the younger guys, just show them they need to do this and this to be able to get a longer career because they have been through it, played a lot of games for South Africa and went overseas, came back and there are still good players, so there is the mental aspect of it.”
Being mentally strong has been the blessing for Botha’s enduring career. Ruptured knee ligaments ruined his second and last Springboks appearance in 2013, precipitating a difficult period that had its nadir when Ulster withdrew a two-year contract offer in May 2017 due to his inability to stay injury-free.
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He didn’t blink. Eventually, a short-term deal at London Irish led to Munster and his Bulls return has now given the 29-year-old Botha a shot at bridging the eight-year gap back to his last South Africa selection. “Luckily I have a good support structure, my family, my wife, my agent. I’m a Christian so I believe in something bigger and something better. I will never forget that time [the Ulster rejection]. It was challenging but at the same time you don’t weep, you don’t feel sorry for yourself for too long.
“After that email, I just knew I was going to play rugby again and I put a goal down that I was going to do it before the end of January 2018. I got my scan again in November 2017. Everything was fine with my knee and I got a contract at Irish for four months. It’s tough but you learn so much from it, you can now say when something happens I have been through worse.
“In rugby, if you’re really smart about it you can learn a lot. You say it’s not that bad, embrace it and get something out of it… what people struggle with is they ask the wrong questions and blame the wrong people. I believed I was going to play rugby again, put my head to it and I played.
“I have played for a lot of things and nothing came from it also. When it doesn’t come through, when it disappoints, you still have to have that faith. It’s really a relationship and something that you have to understand to walk with it otherwise it is just going to bite you.
“The fact that I came out of it injury-free makes a massive difference in your career and mentally, especially mentally… it [being injury-free] is definitely one of the bigger reasons why we enjoyed it so much in Europe because it wasn’t a good stint for me in South Africa from 2013 to 2017.”
The ongoing pandemic means no-one can be certain when the Springboks will next play. The Lions tour is in jeopardy, but Botha wearing the green shirt of South Africa again, especially against Warren Gatland’s side, would be the stuff of dreams after everything he went through.
“I would probably see it as my Test debut again. It is eight years. One of the bigger reasons why I came back was to give myself a chance to see if I can do this now. If I can’t then I can go and take my head out of it a bit more and just relax playing whereas now it is focused and goal-driven.
“I would probably handle it like a first cap because it is a massive, massive privilege. You think there is always going to be another one, but you never know when it is the last one… it would definitely be one of the bigger moments of my life.
“You can only look at your own life and see what you want to do, see what is the maximum, and that will probably be the maximum… I don’t think I can put into words what it would mean. It would be a life-changing moment, just a massive honour.
“You always see these videos of twelve years back when they played. It always looks so nice, the crowds and the people. When you do it you have to have that, you can’t do it without a crowd. You need the full aspect of it.”
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