When the biggest days arrive, competition for places in almost every area of the Munster team is fierce — and the back row is no exception.
Two of the three places are the property of Lions Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. And now that the luckless Tommy O’Donnell is sidelined by an ankle injury, favourite for the number 7 jersey is Chris Cloete.
Impressive as he has been, however, he faces strong challenges from fellow South African Arno Botha and fit-again Conor Oliver.
Botha only arrived during the summer but having witnessed from the sidelines the kind of excitement generated by Munster and having played the entire second half against Gloucester at a packed Thomond Park, he doesn’t conceal a burning desire to pull on the jersey on the biggest days of all.
“Even going down to Exeter with the team, I didn’t play there but the energy was amazing and the support, it’s amazing to see how many people went down for a game like that,” Botha said. “It’s something I hadn’t seen before and certainly was something to take in. Then there was the Gloucester game at home. That was something special even if it wasn’t so good for Tommy (O’Donnell), a class player going off with his ankle, but I did enjoy that 40 minutes and the atmosphere.”
It remains to be seen if Botha will see more of the action in the four European matches that lie in wait between now and mid-January.
“Yes of course the competition is tough but I don’t think about it like that,” says Botha. “At Munster, we try to make the team better and if I can do that in any way I can, then I will do so.
“That’s where you need to trust the coach also to make the right decision. I can only do what I can do, to play the games I play, if I focus on games still to come, I have no control over that so I’m wasting my energy on that.
Botha’s powerfully built 6 ft 2inch, 17-stone frame, his long, flowing blond hair and dynamic ball carrying make it easy to pick him out on the pitch and make him a crowd favourite. The Red Army has taken him so much to their hearts, that in an interview earlier in the season Tommy O’Donnell described him as “a cult hero”. The admiration is mutual.
“These have been an awesome few months for me. I’m really enjoying it, settling in quite nicely, and happy to have come here. I didn’t know a lot about Munster except that it was a world-class club, very rich in the history of rugby.
“At the time, I was at the Bulls and wasn’t watching rugby a lot, seven years there and enjoying life before heading off to London Irish for four months from January to May this year before I got the first opportunity to come here. I didn’t know a lot but everything I have seen has been good.
“For me, it’s about a mindset, a mentality, and what you make of it. If I’m not going to make it nice for myself, I’m not going to enjoy every day of it so it’s a mindset of enjoying it. But it’s not difficult for me because it’s been easy to settle in.”
It was also a help that two more South Africans, coach Johann van Graan and inspirational number eight CJ Stander, were already with Munster when the chance to come here arose.
“Johann was at the Bulls when I started there so we worked together for three years and with South Africa in 2012 and 2013,” said Botha, proud possessor of two Springbok caps.
“That influenced my decision to come here because I knew the type of person and coach he is. Look at his record, he’s been constant all his life, 10-plus years with the Bulls and six with South Africa so he’s not jumping around... he wants to make a difference in people’s lives so I knew it would always be good for me to be involved with him.
“Yeah, CJ was also at the Bulls, I think he started in 2009 until 2012 and I only came in the year after that. We played 2011 in the Currie Cup and under 20s, 21s and won a trophy together. We weren’t very good friends then but we are now.
“We speak and joke a lot about that. It’s all because of the hard work he has been doing. Obviously he made the right decision to come here.”