Botham bowling them over with Rhinos after escaping father's shadow

After spells in cricket and rugby union, a famous son seems to have found his niche, writes Dave Hadfield
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Liam Botham does not have many regrets about the directions in which his varied sporting career has led him. In fact, there is just the one: "I wish I had started playing rugby league earlier."

Liam Botham does not have many regrets about the directions in which his varied sporting career has led him. In fact, there is just the one: "I wish I had started playing rugby league earlier."

As the bearer of one of Britain's most famous sporting surnames, county cricketer and England A international in rugby union, it is asking a lot for him to start breaking new ground in a new game in his late twenties, but that is what Botham is doing. This week, leading up to tomorrow's Powergen Challenge Cup tie against Warrington, has not been the best for Leeds. They forfeited an unbeaten record stretching back to last October by losing at home to Wakefield on Monday, but the game was a personal landmark for Botham.

He made his first start of the season in the Rhinos' first team, scored his first try for them and was one of their better performers. From being something of an object of curiosity, he has emerged as a genuine rugby league player - one who will have a right to be disappointed if he is not in the line-up tomorrow.

It is fitness and enthusiasm that have brought him to this point. "Everything we do in training, if Liam is not first, he's very close to it," his coach, Tony Smith, said.

"It would be very easy for me to sit back," Botham said. "But the one thing I've never wanted is for anyone to be able to say, 'You're only here because of your name.' I always got that sort of thing at junior level; not so much now."

Growing up in his father's shadow as a young cricketer must have been close to impossible and, in 1996, he gave up his career with Hampshire to concentrate on rugby union. "I'd back myself to have done fairly well if I'd stuck with cricket, but I'm not one to look back and think, 'What if I'd done this or done that?'"

After playing for West Hartlepool, Cardiff and Newcastle, he reached the second big turning point of his sporting career when he persuaded the Bradford Bulls to give him trials in their Academy side. If not quite a Road to Damascus, it was definitely a "Road to Headingley" experience. As soon as Botham played league, he realised it was the game for him. "A lot of the time, I came off the field in union and thought, 'What have I done?' I might have touched the ball twice and made a couple of tackles and people would be coming up saying I'd had a good game. If that was all you did in a game of league, you wouldn't be playing next week."

There was no doubting Botham's appetite for the game, but Bradford were not convinced that he could make the transition. That was where Leeds came in, because, with their dual-code operation, there was scope for him to play the code of rugby he had proved he could play, as well as learning the code he wanted to play.

His senior career in his third sport got off to an inauspicious start. He was selected to play at Castleford in 2003 but, with mum and dad in the stand, the ball seemed studiously to avoid him and the experiment of playing him was widely dismissed as a novelty. "I never saw the ball," he says. "It was like being back playing union."

Last year, Botham was back in rugby union playing for Leeds Tykes, but also had an eight-match loan spell with the London Broncos that gave him some valuable rugby league game time.

It is this season, however, that he has really found his role with the Rhinos. A goal-kicking winger in union, he has been reinvented as a grafting second-rower - the right place to use the enthusiasm and fitness that characterise him.

"Tony Smith is probably the best coach I've had in any sport and people like Brian McDermott have also been great. If you're prepared to put the extra time in, they'll work with you. The set-up here is so good, I sometimes think that some of the young players don't quite appreciate how lucky they are." Leeds have as good a production line as any club in the country and that means that Botham, at 27, is in competition for a first-team place with up-and-coming players 10 years younger.

"I still feel I've got a fairly young body. I'm 27 and if I'd played league all the way through it would be different. But I'm a low mileage rugby league player. I wouldn't say I've arrived, but I've been pleased with my last few performances. I wouldn't say I deserve to be in the side now, but I've reached the stage where I'd be disappointed to be left out."

If Botham Jr needs any inspiration, he is at the right venue to draw it from the very bricks and mortar of the place. He was only three when his dad performed his heroics on the other side of the grandstand and has no recollection of the 1981 Test against Australia. "But I'm very proud of what my old man did here and I've seen the video often enough; it's part of sporting history. It was the making of my old man; I'd like to start having a few match-winning performances here myself."

JACK OF ALL TRADES: BOTHAM'S SPORTING LIFE

CRICKET

Born in Lancashire, Botham followed in his father's footsteps by taking up cricket. Became a right-handed bat and right-arm medium-fast bowler who joined Hampshire as a teenager, taking five wickets on his debut in 1996. He only played three first-class matches, scoring 31 runs. In his solitary one-day match he hit one run and failed to take a wicket.

RUGBY UNION

Made debut for West Hartlepool and England Under-21s in 1997 before joining Cardiff in 1998. In the 1999-00 season scored 10 tries, five penalties and two conversions in helping Cardiff to the Heineken Cup quarter-final. Moved on to Newcastle in 2000 and won Tetley's Bitter Cup and reached European Shield final.

RUGBY LEAGUE

In 2003, had league trials for Bradford Bulls but eventually signed for union's Leeds Tykes instead, partly because of their dual-code policy. Keen to develop his league skills, he played for sister club Leeds Rhinos until the Tykes' season started. Made only one appearance for Rhinos in 2003 and spent part of 2004 season on-loan at London Broncos. Last Monday, makes first start of the 2005 season for Rhinos and scores first try for club.

Comments