Rugby Union: Botham in swing on the wing

Hugh Godwin says a career switch lifted the burden of comparisons
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The Independent Online
THE STORY goes that when Liam Botham arrived for training with his new club Cardiff roughly a year ago the greeting was less than welcoming. "And who are you then?" said one of the coaches.

The inference was that Botham's transfer from West Hartlepool, a product of his father's long-time friendship with the Cardiff owner Peter Thomas, was somehow suspect. The story may be apocryphal, but it is an indication that, while being the son of a famous, nay legendary, father may open doors, you have to work that much harder to be accepted.

Twelve months on and the name Liam Botham has become a regular on the Cardiff team sheet. He is there again today on the wing against Newcastle with Craig Morgan on the other flank and rugby league recruit Anthony Sullivan absent nursing the shoulder he injured in Wednesday's Wales A match at Pontypridd.

It was in the sport his father dominated for a decade that Liam came to prominence. He struck his maiden century for his prep school, Cundall Manor near Thirsk, while playing for the Under-11s against their Yorkshire rivals St Martin's. His mum, Kathy, and her parents would be present at most matches and if dad could not make it he would ensure a photographer was present to keep the family album updated. A professional career beckoned and, sure enough, Hampshire snapped up the youthful talent on a two-year contract.

So far, so predictable. Then came rugby. The former England captain Bill Beaumont, Botham senior's old sparring partner on A Question of Sport, recommended Liam to West Hartlepool, having seen him in action for Rossall School in Lancashire. Here was a sport that Liam was good at and, crucially so far as he was concerned, his father was not. The weight of comparison that would have followed the son throughout a cricketing career was absent.

By now a strongly built 19-year-old, Botham chose full-time rugby, said farewell to Hampshire County Cricket Club and made his league debut for West Hartlepool against Bristol in January 1997.

If it was quiet stability that Botham was after, he did not get it. There was a hiatus at West caused by the replacement of Mark Ring as coach by Mike Brewer, and Liam was not seeing much first-team action. Peter Thomas ran into his pal Ian, a regular companion on golfing trips to Ireland, at the Ryder Cup in Valderrama last autumn and undertook to get Liam down to Cardiff for a month's trial.

Before that, the England Under-21 manager, John Elliott, who had capped Botham as a replacement against France at Leicester, omitted him from the squad which toured Australia in the summer of 1997. This year it was a different story. "Liam was an outstanding member of our squad for the Sanzar tournament in South Africa in July," Elliott said. "He played in all four matches against South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, and his attitude was absolutely brilliant. He sets himself high standards and all the other guys looked up to him."

Having turned 21 in August, Botham must now set his sights on an England A cap. Elliott expressed concern that the gap between Under-21 and A team level may leave a number of players, not just Botham, in limbo. First-team rugby for their clubs is important, he said, and this season Botham has had plenty of that with Cardiff. A hat-trick of tries against Cilfynydd in the Swalec Cup was a timely marker to lay down to the newly arrived Sullivan and his other rivals for the wing position, Morgan and Simon Hill.

Like all developing wings, Botham can sometimes look naive in defence. He is not the type to go missing, however, and not just because he has indulged in the bleached-blond look. One thing he will never suffer from is a lack of family support. Ian makes the long drive from home in the north of England to see his son in almost every match he plays. It is thought that Botham senior may even be on the point of joining the Cardiff board. Maybe the name has opened the door for Liam Botham. It is up to him how long he stays around.