BJ Botha still relishing hard road with Munster

South African is desperate to win some silverware after seven seasons in Ireland

Former Springbok prop BJ Botha learned some hard scrummaging lessons early in his career from players like Anton Oliver and Carl Hoeft. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Former Springbok prop BJ Botha learned some hard scrummaging lessons early in his career from players like Anton Oliver and Carl Hoeft. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It was a slightly different festive period for BJ Botha. He had his mum and dad over, albeit flight complications ensured them of a first and last Christmas in a Durban airport hotel, but they flew to Shannon in time for Munster’s win over Leinster on St Stephen’s Day, and stayed into the new year for Botha’s birthday.

What with derbies on St Stephen’s Day and New Year’s Day, Christmas is not the most family-friendly time for a professional player, but Botha did his best to give his parents a feel for his family’s life in Limerick and Ireland. For that first weekend in January they all went to Doonbeg, Botha, his wife Taryn, their children Ava (six), Owen (four) and Sydney (nine months), and his parents, James and Mignon.

“It was awesome weather,” Botha recalls fondly. “We took them to the Cliffs of Moher and I told my parents ‘we’ve never seen this place like this and I guarantee you a lot of Irish people who have been here their whole lives and they haven’t seen it like this’.”

Botha speaks from more experience as this is his seventh season in Irish rugby. His arrival pre-empted the Ulster revolution when joining them for three years in 2008, before Munster signed him in 2011. Hence, his children are all Irish-born. Initially, he and Taryn envisaged staying for three years. Now they may end up staying for good.

“The other day I was thinking how quick it’s gone, but I think that means you’ve enjoyed it. It’s a big part of your life when you’ve made it your home, which it is, because for our children, we go to South Africa ‘on holidays’, to see grandma and grandpa, and then we come ‘home’. They’ve got all their friends and school here.”

On January 4th, Botha turned 35. “In rugby terms, it’s getting to an age where I start to think ‘how many more years left?’ I’m at a good stage in that I’m still enjoying my rugby and enjoying my training, and hopefully still performing at the level that I feel is acceptable, and better still if the coaches back you and most importantly the players you play with.”

Milk it

He’s been good value, playing 145 competitive games in six-and-a-half seasons. In addition to 58 games for Ulster, he has played 87 games for Munster. “I’d like to make 100 for Munster as a personal thing, although I’m not the type of bloke that keeps track of that. If it’s 100, it’s 100. But I also want to add to the team and show I can still play.”

Botha has looked in good nick this season and, at times, more animated and pumped up than normal. “Jeepers,” he says, “I think it shows that I’m still enjoying it. I still have the drive to perform and the drive to perform and achieve as a team. That’s the nice thing about Munster; you keep on driving and upping the levels even more.”

Botha has yet to win a medal during his Irish sojourn, and with each passing year the emotional investment and desire to emulate Munster’s class of ’06 and ’08 by winning a European Cup increases; not least after a quarter-final defeat home to Ulster in his first season which was particularly painful, and ensuing semi-final defeats away to Clermont and Toulon.

“Those semi-finals still linger. You feel you’re so close but you’re still quite far away. Everything has to work to get there, and gaining that experience to make the next step. I’ve got no doubt we’ve got the team to do it. It’s making the right decisions under that pressure at the right time, because those games can be won in one moment. But lifting those trophies is what we strive for.”

Facing a point of no return today, Botha takes heart from the way they went to Harlequins as eighth-seeded quarter-finalists two seasons ago and emerged with an 18-12 win. For Botha, big games such as these start, immediately, with the confrontation. “The backs might have to wait five or 10 minutes before there’s even contact. For us, we know it’s coming. We know it’s coming off a kick-off. For me it still burns inside to play in these big occasions.”

Teammates describe him as someone who is devoted to tidiness, and he admits that when he was younger he was particular in his ways, and would have the same routine on match days. Less so nowadays.

“You can build yourself up to a certain intensity before a game. But now I ask: ‘how long does that last for?’ It gets to a stage when you might be 10 or 15 points down and behind your own line, and what’s going through your head? Are you still on that same level? You need to find a way to pick yourself up again.

“During the game I want my mind to be clear. It’s all about subconscious thinking then and reaction, whether it be scrum or the rest of it. That comes from playing a number of years or playing in a team that allows you to do that, that you can just worry about your job and you’re not chasing your tail.”

Irish friends

Outside of family and rugby, his main passion, according to Paul O’Connell, is his car, namely a gold 1988 Mercedes G-Wagon. “I know Paul loves it more” says Botha with a smile. “He’s told me that if I leave he’s going to park it in his garage at his house. I’d been looking at something like that for a while, and funnily CJ [Stander] – we come from similar backgrounds – he has now just got himself a short-wheeled base defender. I think it’s possibly the way we drive around in big cars in South Africa and I just wanted something quite rugged and quite different.

“I think it’s quite under-stated. I enjoy it. I bought it in Kildare and I’m loving it ever since. I’m enjoying driving it, especially in this weather, and the kids love it even more. They think it’s a playground.”

Aside from winning trophies, another legacy, as he sees it, is to help develop other props in Munster and to this end he works with Jerry Flannery, as well as Munster A, academy and Garryowen coaches. But then, as he also admits, he’s no less competitive today and still wants that number three jersey.

“So how much time do you give over to coaching? You don’t want to lose that edge as a player. The age I feel I want to be a part of, if I do go into coaching, is around 19/20, because they’re not as set in their ways yet and you can still influence them.

“As well as scrummaging, the other part I would like to refine is the maul, because I think it’s quite similar to the scrum set-up. So for me it would be great to work with a group of players for a season or two. Hopefully that opportunity does come along after I’ve finished playing.”

If it’s not to be a full-time, specialist coaching role, he would see it dovetailing with one or two business ideas he has. “It depends where I’m living. That’s all up in the air.” To that end he’s doing a sports and conditioning degree.

That said, he maintains there’s no substitute for game time, even at club level. He remembers his own formative days, when a coach by the name of Henning Swanepoel gave him under-21 trials at a Durban club called Collegians and put him on the Sharks’ under-21 C side when he was 16.

Got punished

In Super Rugby, he also had to learn some harsh scrummaging lessons, notably against the combined wiles of Carl Hoeft and Anton Oliver in Dunedin’s aptly nicknamed ground at Carisbrook. “They taught me a couple of lessons in the House of Pain,” he says, with a rueful smile. “But if you keep coming back, you grow.”

Almost two decades on from those first opportunities, it’s been quite a journey. “It’s been unbelievable,” he says, shaking his head with a smile, “and hopefully there’s another year or two in it yet.”

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