James Botham says he ‘dreamed of wearing Wales jersey against England’
Cardiff-born, England-raised player has ‘worked his whole life’ for Saturday’s match
Wales’s James Botham in action against and Georgia at Parc y Scarlets on November 21st. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
His grandfather was an English sporting icon and his father toured South Africa with Sir Clive Woodward’s England in 2000 without winning a cap, but James Botham’s dream since he was a boy has been to pull on the red jersey and take on the men in white.
His envisaged setting was the Principality Stadium rather than Parc y Scarlets, where Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup match will be played, but the 22-year-old flanker, who was born in Cardiff when his father Liam played for the Arms Park club but moved to England when he was three, cares only that he will be involved two weeks after he was unexpectedly called into the Wales squad.
“I have dreamt of this moment ever since I was chucking a ball around as a kid,” said Botham, whose cricketing grandfather, Sir Ian, regularly came to watch him play in Wales before the coronavirus restrictions were imposed. “This is probably the one thing I have worked for my whole life: to get the red jersey on and play against England.”
Botham made his Wales debut against Georgia last weekend, playing out of position on the blind side, but he will be the breakaway against England, part of a youthful side that, for the first time since he took over as Wales’s head coach a year ago, bears the bold imprint of Wayne Pivac.
Shane Lewis-Hughes wins his third cap in the backrow, while behind the scrum the three-quarters Johnny Williams, Nick Tompkins and Louis Rees-Zammit keep their places after the victory over Georgia ended a run of six successive defeats. The most significant selection is at scrumhalf, where Lloyd Williams will make his first international start for four years, charged with getting the ball quickly away from the breakdown.
“The Georgia game was a big step up from the Blues, and England will be a massive one from that,” said Botham. “I prefer to play at seven and having Shane [his Blues teammate] at six will be great. I just want to bring some physicality over the ball and in possession. We know the intensity the English back row will come with and I cannot wait.”
Bearing an easily identifiable family name can be a burden. Sir Donald Bradman’s son, John, changed his because he felt it was crushing him, but Botham is not weighed down. “It is one of those things and you get on with it and create your own legacy,” he said. “I am sure my grandad will be backing me 100 per cent even though I will not have the white jersey he supports on.”
Pivac’s bold selection was partly enforced by injuries: Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric would have been backrow options but for concussion while Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams were already ruled out. He chose not to recall the wing George North, meaning Rees-Zammit will get a run against his Gloucester club colleague Jonny May, and the back division, which is stiffened by the experienced Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny, is an attacking unit with all the three-quarters forged in the Premiership.
“We are using this tournament to build depth,” said Pivac. “Results have not come but a number of players have had exposure. Wales played a certain style under Warren Gatland [his predecessor] and we are looking to evolve the attacking side of the game. It takes time, three years when I was at the Scarlets. You would like to think it will be a quicker process with international players and we are seeing a difference in training. Now we have to step it up under match pressure.”
Pivac was queried when he said that he expected at least one of Navidi and Tipuric to be available for the game “against Italy” next weekend. That will only happen if Wales maintain their current group position of third. It was seen as a defeatist remark, but Wales will only finish higher if Ireland stumble against Georgia and defeat England by 29 points, something they have never done.
“England are very strong and will test us across the park,” he said. “It is exactly what we need and motivation will not be an issue. James and Shane are young guys with big futures and what a match for them to be tested in.”