Evening Standard

'England made me,' says Mouritz Botha. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Mouritz Botha is so relaxed about his South African origins that he can even joke about his name. “Be sure to spell my name correctly,” he says. “Mouritz, not Maurice, otherwise I would sound really English. Then I might even have to be called Maurice Botham.”

There’s no danger of confusing the lock born in Vryheid, KwaZulu Natal, with Beefy. But the 29-year-old likely to face Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield on Saturday week will wear the England shirt with just as much pride as England’s most celebrated all-rounder.

“There is no extra pressure on me because I was not born in England,” he insists. “I enjoy living here and am very proud to represent this country. England has a unique and renowned culture that had a massive influence on South Africa. I adapted to the culture. I find it wrong when people move to a country and cling to all the things from their country of origin.”

Such is his identification with this country that he feels a thrill every time he lands at Heathrow. He has just come back from a visit to Cape Town with his club, Saracens, and says: “For the last six years that I’ve gone back to South Africa, every time I land in England, it’s like ‘Phew, what a relief to be back’.”

He justifies these sentiments with the acknowledgment that: “England made me.” Or, more precisely, Bedford.

Sitting opposite the 6ft 6in blond at the club’s St Albans training ground, it is hard to believe that eight years ago Botha had struggled to get into the provincial side in Boland.

He says: “I was told that I’d never make it as a rugby player in South Africa. At 105kg (16st 7lb) I was too light to succeed in the second row at the Stormers [the Cape Town club].”

Botha took to the internet, emailed some 20 clubs in England and had a call from a guy with an Irish accent [director of rugby Ed Axon]. “I could hardly understand what he said but he managed to convince me that I should join Bedford Athletic [then in Midlands One]. They paid my fares. I lived in a rugby house, didn’t pay any rent and the club also got me a job as an office assistant for about £200 a week.”

His rugby progressed but within six months he had been made redundant and was working in a carpet washing factory. “There was a tumble dryer about three metres high,” he recalls. “I dried the carpets and then you had to roll and fold them. I would do about six tons a day, which was brutal. The shift was from six in the morning until two in the afternoon. Then I had to go home, have a nap and go to training.”

The next job was even worse. “I started working as an asbestos removal operative. It was pretty grim.”

He moved to Bedford Blues (then in National Division One) in 2006 with a contract worth £10,000 but when he was chosen for East Midlands in the Mobbs Memorial match against the Barbarians the following season Botha was in despair. “I felt that I would not become an England player,” he says. “I was thinking my time was running out.”

The only thing that kept him going was meeting the love of his life Natasha, now his wife, in a Bedford bar. Then, suddenly he got a message on Facebook saying that Saracens were looking for a second-row player.

The men who interviewed him were Brendan Venter, Saracens’ South African coach, Morne du Plessis, the former Springbok captain, and Edward Griffiths, the chief executive with strong South African connections.

When Botha left the room Venter turned to Du Plessis and asked him what he felt. “I don’t know much about his rugby ability but I would sign him just on the fact that he wants it so much,” was the former No8’s verdict.

“As I was driving out, I got a call from Edward saying that they wanted to offer me a contract. I didn’t even ask how much, I just said, ‘That’s brilliant,’ pulled up in front of the gates and began a celebration, rocking the car. I looked up and saw Edward looking down from his office. I felt very embarrassed.”

As his career progressed with Sarries, it was clear Botha’s talk of playing for England was no longer the joke it had been when he had told friends at Bedford about his dream.

“Towards the end of my first pre-season training with players like Steve Borthwick [then the England captain] in 2009-10 I had a meeting with our team psychologist,” he says. “I said to him, ‘I think I can go on to play for England.’ He said, ‘If you can see something in your head or in your mind, if you can see a path towards it, then a lot of the time it is do-able.'”

By the end of the season, Botha was so sure he had succeeded that he could not hide his disappointment at not making the Saxons squad. He had to wait until last season, impressing hugely in Churchill Cup matches, and was picked by Martin Johnson for his World Cup training camp, only to miss the cut again. “It affected me more than I thought it would,” he says. “It took me quite a while to get over it. I had to refocus.”

Now, after England’s disastrous World Cup, the coach who chose Botha for the Churchill Cup is the man who will decide whether he makes his Six Nations debut at Murrayfield.

For Botha, Stuart Lancaster, England’s acting coach, can do no wrong. “I enjoyed the three weeks I spent with Stuart at the Churchill Cup. He is a very approachable guy. He’s got a PE teacher’s background. He’s very organised, he likes to work according to a programme. He’s got all his structures in place and it’s nice to be in an environment when you know what to expect.

“You know where you stand with him. He’s a guy who instils confidence in his players and I’m looking forward to working with him again.

“Stuart’s got the right idea with the amateur values that you want to reinstall in the game. You want to get the culture right, get the team playing for each other.

“A coach can’t improve your technique. The biggest challenge is to get the environment right so you have 15 guys willing to put their bodies on the line for each other and for the coach. If we get the culture right there’s no reason why we couldn’t win the Six Nations.”

Botha has no fears of a World Cup hangover. He insists: “It’s a clean slate, there’s no pressure and the team are ready to move on.”

What Lancaster and the RFU will love to hear is that, unlike some of the Cup squad, Botha is not motivated by money. “I played until a couple of years ago for next to nothing and every time you put a shirt on, be it for club or country, it’s just a proud moment of joy and pure satisfaction. Money doesn’t matter.”

What will he do if he makes the team? “Just what I do for Saracens on a weekly basis: work really hard, be tremendously physical and try and just smash people.”

The Scots have been warned.


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