Mouritz Botha: For the joker it's time to get serious
England's South African-born lock faces tough tour of the homeland that rejected him but he relishes prospect of proving a lot of people wrong
Conversing calmly on what it is like to be a South African playing rugby for England, Mouritz Botha says: "I don't know how to put this but I'm probably the proudest non-English Englishman there is. Both times we played at Twickenham in the Six Nations, I got really emotional during the national anthem, you feel the emotion rising up inside you. I had to really take a deep breath to settle it down. I'm really proud to be playing for England and really proud to live in the country."
And how will he feel when he plays his next Test, selection permitting, considering it will be in South Africa when England tour there in June? "I think I'm representing two countries and the best way I can do that is to play well for England," says Botha. "Friends and family back there would just be really proud of me if I do well."
And that is the thing with these questions of nationality, which have been put to many people in many sports from Tiffany Porter in athletics to Manu Tuilagi, the Samoan-born England team-mate of Botha's during the Six Nations that concluded last weekend with four wins from five matches. The rules are the rules – Botha qualifies comfortably under rugby's three-year residency regulation, having moved to the UK in 2004 aged 22 – and the rest is opinion.
Botha says that despite England being housed at what might be reasonably regarded as a bastion of conservatism at Twickenham, he has had "nothing negative to my face." That may, of course, be because his face, under a blond bomb site of a hairdo, comes atop a 6ft 6in, 18st frame.
But in cyberspace you can always hear a critic scream. "I definitely know that there's people out there that don't think I should be playing for England," Botha says. "You know, on Twitter or Facebook or wherever, people give you abuse, tell you that you shouldn't be playing: 'Mouritz Botha, sounds very English...' That's their opinion. I've got my opinion and all the people surrounding me are on my side.
"I'm really happy and I'm really, really proud to be playing for England. I owe everything to English rugby for developing me as a player and giving me the opportunity. Throughout the build-up to the Six Nations, when Stuart [Lancaster] got guys like Jamie Peacock and Gary Neville to talk to us about what it means to them representing their country, it just made me really proud."
Lancaster, the interim coach for the Six Nations, and Nick Mallett, English-born but brought up in Rhodesia and South Africa, had interviews last Thursday to be England's permanent head coach. When Botha was a kid growing up in the Northern Cape – he was born in up-country Natal before his parents Herman and Adri moved for their teaching work – he watched on TV, "cheering them on", as the Springboks coached by Mallett reeled off a record-equalling run of Test wins in the late 1990s.
Botha reels off the names – "Mark Andrews, Rassie Erasmus, Andre Venter, Cobus Visagie, Henry Honiball..." – and you can picture him peering wide-eyed at the green jerseys. Now it's all white for Botha, thanks to a chain of events that began with him being told by a contact at Western Province that he was too small for a provincial contract (he was 16 and a half stones at the time), and choosing to throw in his job organising touch rugby leagues in Cape Town to join Bedford Athletic, followed by Bedford and, in 2009, his current club Saracens.
"I'll have more to prove than other players going out there," says Botha of the South Africa tour of three Tests and two midweek matches that starts in 10 weeks' time. "I've got a lot to prove and would like to prove a lot of people wrong."
Does the same go for England, for whom Botha did his bit in the destruction of Ireland's scrum eight days ago? "It will definitely be a step up," he says. A huge step? "Yeah, definitely. South Africa have always had a big set-piece and a lot of physicality and if you can't stand up to that, you can't compete. There's room for improvement for us and it's a massive challenge, they don't come much bigger."
In common with every current England player who has expressed an opinion, Botha wants Lancaster to stay on as coach. Equally he professes respect for the "very successful career" of Mallett, whom he has never met. Botha was signed to Saracens by a South African coach, Brendan Venter, and a former Springbok captain, Morne du Plessis, who is on the club's board. We may be chatting to a backdrop of chirruping birds and Home Counties leafiness in St Albans, but the Republic looms large. England's Under-20s will contest the world championship in Cape Town and Stellenbosch at the same time as the seniors are on tour.
For now Botha is focusing on Saracens' defence of their Premiership title – the next match against Harlequins at Wembley on Saturday may better the world record club crowd of 82,208 set by Leinster and Munster at Croke Park in 2009 – and the Heineken Cup quarter-final at home to Clermont Auvergne the week after with a semi-final in England to play for.
Mallett was summarising on South African TV last weekend when he pinpointed and complimented the Saracens influence on England's style. From long decades of counting their England internationals on one hand, the club had six men as well as the temporarily seconded coach Andy Farrell on duty at Twickenham.
England's forwards coach Graham Rowntree says Botha has a "good pitch presence". In the line-out his common lot is lifting, but Rowntree says: "He does a lot of selfless work. His numbers are high in terms of clearing rucks and his tackle count, his chargedown work and kick pressure around the base of rucks. He's a great scrummager, a great engine for the team. A lot of that is what England are about at the moment. On top of that he's a real good character to have around – though it's mostly taking the mickey out of him. He's always halting training to make a point or air a thought."
Botha smiles at that. "I like having fun in training," he says. "To be too serious all the time is not healthy and definitely not me. I was supposed to be having a day off last Monday but I came into the club just to get the banter out of the way. Taking a kick-off or a line-out, I'd go 'oh, England's finest'. And just resume as normal."
Saracens play Harlequins at Wembley in the Aviva Premiership on Saturday. Tickets start at just £5; visit www.saracensatwembley.com or call Ticketmaster on 0844 847 2482
Lancaster's last stand?
'We have improvements to make all across the park'
Stuart Lancaster, whose contract as England's interim head coach expires on Saturday, says he will be in South Africa in June come what may, either as head coach or looking after the midweek team or attending the world Under-20 championship in his "old job" as the RFU's head of elite player development. "To break into the top three [England are now ranked No 4 in the world] you have got to win in the southern hemisphere or beat southern hemisphere opposition," he says. "We have got improvements to make all across the park. There are elements of our mauling game that could get better. In attack we recognise we create opportunities but we are not finishing them off. We can improve our depth and alignment off the ball. Defensively we put a lot of pressure on teams but there were times when we got broken. As coaches you should never be happy anyway."
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