Accomplished Levani Botia once again poses a huge threat to Leinster’s hopes

The powerful Fijian flanker is the ultimate team player and whether at the breakdown or as a ball carrier he possesses ferocious intent

Levani Botia is known to the supporters of La Rochelle as Le Démolisseur, or “the demolition man”, in homage to his destructive capacity at the breakdown and corrosive tackling. But it doesn’t quite cover all his attributes on a rugby pitch. He is a fearsome ball carrier too.

To his team-mates he is Leps, a self-effacing and hardworking player with a high rugby IQ, that goes way beyond being a physical specimen. He possesses the grit and skills to match the squat power. Botia is the embodiment of a team player. He views it as a necessity rather than a sacrifice, to do everything in pursuit of victory.

He’s spoken about his on-pitch persona before.

“What I do in the field, people say it’s hard, but nothing’s hard. Anyone can do that. If you play rugby, you can do it, it’s not difficult. I just look at what’s in front of me. I just look at what’s good for the team, I choose whatever is right in the field.


“When the game is on, people are tired, the right time is going to come. It’s not just me, I work with the team, I don’t work alone every time,” Botia says. “That’s what the people say. For me I just focus on how teamwork brings everything together.”

To better understand that philosophy, it’s germane to delve into his background. Born on the largest Fijian island of Viti Levu, in the province of Naitasiri; “From the bush and mountains,” as he would describe it.

Without access to a rugby ball, he and his friends played using a water bottle or coconut. Fleshing out the context of his childhood in an interview with English media ahead of last year’s World Cup clash between Fiji and England, Botia explained: “When I was a kid, we did not have electricity, but we had a generator.

“So, we took it to the mountain where we tried to find a reception to watch the TV. Rugby is like something that goes through our blood, it does not matter your age. We just climbed the mountain. They are always behind the players when there’s a Fiji game.”

Botia moved to the Fijian capital of Suva from where he walked the 14 kilometres back to Nakasi after lunch for training because he’d only enough bus fare ($1.20) for one journey. To supplement his income while playing rugby he took a job as a prison officer.

He recalled: “I think that’s what rugby gave to me. It took me somewhere I didn’t expect to be, working in a prison. It was not my call. Working in a prison is not simple, as we can see from the outside. But working inside is a little bit difficult. You’re dealing with the people who have done something wrong, breaking the rules, the law.

“So it’s not easy when you are inside there. It’s one of my memories, it’s something that helps me on the rugby field. I know when things are hard, I think about when I start. Life inside is different. Sometimes it encourages me, it’s difficult.”

Botia played for the Wardens Sevens team where he came to the attention of the legendary Waisale Serevi and from there was seconded to the national side – one of his favourite memories is playing in the Hong Kong Sevens – first in the abbreviated game and then for the Flying Fijians in 15s, for whom he played in the 2015, 2019 and 2023 World Cups.

In March 2014 former Fijian wing Sireli Bobo – he scored a try for Biarritz Olympique when they lost to Munster in the 2006 Heineken Cup final – who was playing with La Rochelle contacted Botia with an offer of a three-month medical joker placement with La Rochelle, a French ProD2 team at the time, for the injured Italian centre Gonzalo Canale.

Botia removed the safety net, quit his job in the prison and headed for France for what was essentially a five-match trial. After a month the club offered him a contract. His two tries in the semi-final win over Pau saw Les Maritimes promoted to the French Top 14. Botia and tight head prop Uini Atonio are the two surviving members in the current squad from that promotion campaign.

In 2021 he was sent off for a high tackle on Maxime Medard as La Rochelle lost the final to Toulouse but erased that memory with a couple of winner’s medals, on both occasions against Leinster, the that they will face once again at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

During his time with the French club, he has also played in two Top 14 finals and finished runner-up in the European Challenge Cup. He played left wing, right wing, and centre in his first four seasons in France but started getting starts as a flanker from 2017 on and has been largely ensconced in that position in recent years.

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara speaks glowingly about Botia, the person, the player, and the leader; the feeling is reciprocated.

“There are a lot of things I have learned from past coaches, but Ronan is a little different from all of them. It’s more specific and across all different areas.

“Sometimes we will try to get something done and think it is right, but he’ll say, ‘no, it’s still wrong’. He gives us a lot of time, and work, to learn everything, especially most of us who have played a long career, but we still have more to learn from him. He believes in me.”

And so do his team-mates. Leinster know all about the Fijian, their hopes demolished in three painful European defeats with Botia a primary contributor. If he gets his hands on the ball it’ll all break down for the home side again; they must keep him quiet.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer