Why Botham can up the pace for England
Sunday 14 May 2000
Forget the nonsense about Liam, the son of... Liam Botham is very much his own man, and his decision to move from Cardiff to Newcastle confirms the point. The positive influences of his parents, Ian and Kathy, are self-evident, as the highly competitive and gushingly polite young man exudes all the worthy attributes of a professional sportsman.
The young Botham is an all-round sportsman, who as a talented teenaged cricketer featured on Hampshire's books, but he was determined to etch a career in rugby union, I suspect, to sidestep away from the cursory comparisons with the legendary Ian.
West Hartlepool gave him his first opportunity at senior club level, but a difficult and unstable financial climate at the northern club, coupled with a different mind-set to the then coach from New Zealand, Mike Brewer, provided the basis for a rocky marriage.
As the then chief executive of Cardiff Rugby Club, I nearly contributed to a rocky marriage myself after contacting the restless Botham when he was, unbeknown to me, on his honeymoon. I had coincidentally careered into Ian on the fairways in Newport, and during our brief conversation, it was apparent that any opportunity at Cardiff would be greatly appreciated.
I explained to Liam that Cardiff would be prepared to grant him a trial period of a few months and only pay his expenses on the way. He grasped the opportunity and insisted on leaving for Cardiff within a day, much to my concern over his nuptial arrangements.
His arrival at one of the world's famous rugby clubs was viewed with much cynicism and some suspicion that this was favouritism, an old pal's act to help a famous father who was well-known to leading figures at Cardiff, particularly the chairman, Peter Thomas.
Perhaps there was some truth in that hypothesis, as nobody knew much of Liam's abilities, but any fears were quickly dispelled. He was barely 20 years of age and naturally pretty raw, but his enduring commitment, will to win and eagerness to learnwere an example to some of the bigger names at the club.
His arrival was, perhaps surprisingly, welcomed by the club's fans, who quickly took to him. He was quick to respond, revealing a penchant for scoring tries. Speed and acceleration are musts for a top-rated international wing, but despite his scoring prowess Liam was probably a couple of yards short on pace, a flaw he readily acknowledged and worked to redress. Today I believe he is a yard away from his target but certainly motoring in the right direction. Last season he was the club's leading try-scorer, during a winter spent rebelliously playing against England's leading clubs and the wingers whose position in the national team he so desires.
This is why, of course, he has set his sights on a return to the Allied Dunbar Premiership and a stage at Newcastle, in order to pitch himself regularly against England's best.
"I have to prove that I can compete against players such as Ben Cohen, Austin Healey and the like, and thus persuade the England selection panel that I am of international quality," he argues. "I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Cardiff and am both grateful and indebted to the club for making my time there a happy period, but more importantly to the coaches for the way in which they helped to develop my game. However, there is a danger of being out of sight and therefore out of the selectors' minds when it comes to national selection."
During the eligibility row, Liam proudly vowed his allegiance to England, despite being approached by the Welsh Rugby Union to consider playing in a Welsh trial match, as within the next few months he would have qualified to play for Wales under the residency rule.
Perhaps this route could have provided a way for him to body-swerve the inevitable comparisons and expectations pressed upon him following his father's exploits, but he has staked his moral bets on representing his country of birth, and rightly so.
He has hopes of an England call-up to South Africa this summer, where his pace and skills would be closely scrutinised by Clive Woodward;his endeavour and competitiveness would not be found wanting. Perhaps this would rub off positively on an England team who have fallen short so often in this area at crucial times over recent years.
Cardiff will miss Liam Botham, and his talent, if nurtured properly, could blossom to England's gain. One thing is certain: he will do things his own way, which perhaps is not too dissimilar to the fashion in which his father rose to sporting greatness.
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