Mouritz Botha has been on an inspiring seven-year journey through English grassroots rugby says that it has cemented his desire to play for England at the Rugby World Cup.
The Saracens lock’s story goes from National Three North and cramped minibuses, via the Championship to Aviva Premiership and England Saxons glory, and he’s now dedicated to making the step into an England shirt.
“I consider myself a product of the English rugby system,” he said. “Coming through grassroots levels and learning your rugby knowledge and being coached to become a better player.”
“I feel like I owe it to England and it’s a great honour [to be named in the preliminary world cup squad], there will be no hesitation to play for England if that opportunity arises.
“When I came over to England the dream of playing for the Springboks faded. When I signed for Saracens there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to play for England. After my first pre-season I had a chat with the club psychologist and I said that my goal was to play for England – obviously he couldn’t laugh at me because he’s there to support me – and I felt there was the opportunity to realise it.”
Although hard to believe, the 6’ 6”, 18-stone forward was once told he was too small to make it as a rugby player, but that was the catalyst for a chain of events which has left the KwaZulu-Natal born lock in Martin Johnson’s preliminary training squad.
After enjoying a stellar season for Aviva Premiership champions Saracens and impressing for England Saxons in their victorious Churchill Cup campaign, 29-year-old Botha was selected by Martin Johnson to compete for a seat on the plane to New Zealand.
But that is only a fraction of the story, for a man who arrived in England in October 2004 to take up the offer of flights, accommodation and an office job from National Three North Bedford Athletic.
“I was playing first team club rugby in South Africa but was told I was a bit small and too light – at the time I weighed about 105kg [16 and a half stone],” he said.
“I was working full time and the hours didn’t allow for me to go to the gym at all and it was going to be a continuous cycle. I wanted to focus more on rugby so I decided to fire my CV off to a few clubs I found on the internet, and Bedford Athletic rang me up and said that they would offer me something.
“I never heard of them before but there were no other interested clubs for them to compete with. Their selling point was that [Championship side] Bedford Blues are in the same town and if I did well there could be the opportunity to go on and play for them.”
So Botha took the chance and moved to England, fully immersing himself in Midlands rugby and meeting his now wife, Natasha, along the way. His next break came after having a fine game in what he considered as a trial for the Blues, playing for East Midlands against the Barbarians in the annual Mobbs Memorial match.”
“It was a brilliant experience with Athletic, but a tough first season. Our closest game was in Rugby, about an hour and a half drive, with most teams in York or Newcastle. We didn’t have a bus either, we piled into a sort of mini-van and we were virtually cramping up on the way to our games. Our away record wasn’t the best, and even though we had the second or third best home record we came last and got relegated.
“After another season I had a good game in Mobbs Memorial match and got a trial and then a small contract at Bedford Blues. I didn’t play much in the first season and it was a massive learning curve for me. Before then I didn’t have any idea that you actually plan two or three phases after a set-piece!”
After what he describes as a ‘storming’ second campaign – being named player of the season – and backing that up the following year, there was interest from Premiership clubs, most notably Saracens.
The rest of the story is more standard for an England international, with Botha securing his move to Vicarage Road in 2009. He made an immediate impact as his all-action style became a major factor for the side in reaching successive Premiership finals in 2010 and 2011.
After winning Sarries first Aviva Premiership title in May Botha became part of the England Saxons group for the 2011 Churchill Cup and helped England retain the title. In hitting the most rucks and topping the tackle count in the victory over Tonga, Botha again caught the eye.
Martin Johnson describes this path to the top as a great story, and after a broad education in the English game, the 2011 Rugby World Cup offers the perfect stage for Botha to deliver on the debt he feels he owes England rugby.