BJ Botha Interview: ‘Overwhelmed? It was actually more relief’

Long before he became an integral part of the Munster team, BJ Botha was part of a South African squad which captured the 2007 World Cup. So what was it like to claim world rugby’s greatest prize?

He’s the daddy of them all now, by a distance.

Brendon James Botha still feels he has a good bit of rugby left in him, more than enough to go beyond the contract that runs to Christmas.

But when he looks around the Munster dressing room now, he sees children where once there were grizzly vets.

This past pre-season the whole club was buzzing with the promise of out-half Billy Johnson, straight out of Rockwell. Billy’s only a kid, 18. In a few months time Botha will be twice that.

Duncan Williams is the second-eldest player in the squad and even Duncan is six years younger than the South African. Forget where did Donncha and Paulie go; where did his career go?

“It’s quite a shock how quick it all goes,” Botha smiles. “I don’t think you realise how quickly until you see that, Jeepers, you’re old enough to be the father of one of your teammates.” Yet even when the likes of O’Connell, O’Callaghan and O’Gara strode about that dressing room, Botha commanded a certain seniority and respect. He wasn’t just any thirtysomething tighthead prop.

He was BJ Botha, Springbok. BJ Botha, World Cup winner. The current daddy of them all had won the daddy of them all.

It would be wrong to say that he looks back at that 2007 World Cup with nothing but fond memories.

Injury would rule him out of the knockout stages. After damaging his knee ligaments in the last pool game against the USA, he’ll admit for a few days he was “a broken man”.

But he’d be there the week and day of the final: in the team room, dressing room, the substitutes bench; on the podium.

And as for the first few weeks of that tournament, before that injury? The memory and privilege of a lifetime.

You’re well familiar now with the horror story September 2007 was for his future teammates with Munster.

For three weeks they were trapped in Bordeaux, in, as Bull Hayes would describe it in his book, “basically a motorway hotel for sales reps to put their head down for the night before moving on again”.

The food was horrendous. “I just bypassed the hot buffet every evening and went straight to the salad and cold meats counter,” Hayes would recount. “I used to wonder about the chefs.

“Like, if I gave the cattle back at home silage and it was still there the next day, I’d know straightaway there was something wrong with it.”

It wasn’t a small thing; it was a big thing. It affected their nutrition, energy, physicality, morale. They’d to scramble for something to eat while there was “nowhere to go and not a lot to do.”

It couldn’t have been more different for his opposite number with South Africa. While Ireland’s World Cup and surroundings was purgatory, Botha’s and the Boks’ was a playground. Almost a Eurodisney, about the only tourist attraction in Paris they didn’t visit.

They’d take a daytrip out to Versailles, take in the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre. After he and his teammates would smash England 36-0 in their pool game, he’d enjoy a fine meal with a glass of red wine with his wife.

During the day he could head out with a few teammates and their partners to a cafe just off Champs Elysees, saluting and mixing with Bok fans along the way.

“We were staying in the middle of Paris where everything was happening. It was World Cup fever for us. We felt a part of the World Cup and the whole experience. And we fed off that energy.

“You’d meet supporters but there was nothing overwhelming or draining about it. They’d be glad to see us and we’d be glad to see them. It was like we were on this adventure in a foreign country together.” Wives, children, partners could also regularly visit and stay.

“That was another massive factor. Other teams were maybe too regimental and cooped up. We were a very family-oriented group. We were fully set up the way you would want. Whatever best suited you to get the best out of you, it was laid on.” Everything was geared towards peaking at and winning that tournament. Everything. In November 2006 Botha was on the Boks team heavily beaten in the old Lansdowne Road by a rampant Ireland team. Coach Jake White just about survived a no-confidence vote from the union. But all along White had everyone within his group convinced it was all about having the best players on the field in France in the best possible condition for the months of September and October 2007. And Botha was one of those players he wanted out there, committed to and in that vision.

He’d only broken into the team that 2006 season. His first start was against the All Blacks in a thrilling 21-20 TriNations win in Rustenburg. Yet in the following year’s Tri Nations Botha was one of a core group of established players White kept back while a Boks selection toured. They were to train at home, play only at home. There were certain games they raised it for, like two games against a touring England side, to lay down a psychological marker for their group game in Paris.

But other days in the lead-in to that tournament they didn’t look that impressive, which is why he has no concerns about how Joe Schmidt’s team are gearing up for this World Cup.

“We almost lost to Connacht in the Showgrounds. And we were poor enough in a win over Scotland as well. We were disappointed in our performance but it didn’t go deep because it wasn’t the prize we were after.

“I believe you need to peak in the tournament and throughout the tournament. It’s about keeping players fresh and yet giving them enough game time. And I think Ireland have all that now. They’ve one or two players that are carrying niggles but they still have their core base of players that they’re going to the World Cup with. So I don’t think they should look too deep into those losses to Wales and England.” Sadly for Botha he’d pick up more than a niggle in France. He’d started in that red-circled pool game against England when, he says, “it all had come together, we were just relentless; England must have felt like they were playing against 30 men.” He’d been used sparingly from the bench against Samoa and Tonga. Then 27 minutes into the game against the USA he carried a ball around the corner, fell awkwardly, and a teammate landed on his leg. His ACL was gone.

“I look at someone like Leigh Halfpenny now and it must be even more devastating as a World Cup is a massive thing in your career. But it was still a huge upset for me because we had built up something special, and you wanted to be part of it on the field. It was a tough one. Do you stay in that environment, or take yourself out of it completely? Because at that point you are a broken person.” He’d decide after a couple of days to opt out and head home, at least for awhile. Like the whole group he was mentally conditioned to South Africa winning the tournament, every game just a step to that outcome, and so he calculated that he could always return to France for the tournament. After watching the semi-final win over Argentina back home with his dad, he’d head over to Paris with his wife Taryn.

He’d sit in on the team meetings, offer insights to his replacement CJ van der Linde at half-time in the final before returning to his spot up in the cushioned dugout with Jean de Villiers, who’d been out injured since the opening game of the tournament, the pair of them in tracksuits.

“When the final whistle went, you were just standing there, thinking, ‘Jeepers, we’ve done it.’ People say you must have been overwhelmed. It was actually more relief. You worked so hard for that moment to finally arrive, you know all you’ve sacrificed. How much euphoria can you really have? The joy was really in preparing for it, all the way back.”

Did winning the big one change his life, or at least the perception of him, even in his own eyes? No. As a kid the aspiration was never so much to win a World Cup as simply to play for the Boks. If there had to be a specific game or tournament, it was to play for them against the All Blacks – in New Zealand.

“That’s the biggest challenge in rugby for a Springbok, that’s where you’re in the cauldron, in a dark place, that’s where you find out about yourself.” The way things worked out, that wouldn’t happen until 2010. “In South Africa I wouldn’t say you were seen all that much as BJ Botha, World Cup winner. It was only in Europe when I arrived here that it carried that status. And look, 2007 was an incredible time in my career, but I firmly believe you’re only as good as your last game.” That was the challenge he threw down to himself when he signed for Ulster in the autumn of 2008.

Being a World Cup winner, a lot was expected of him. He was expected to change the culture of a club in the doldrums, engulfed by negativity. With the Boks and the Sharks, he didn’t have to be one of the more vocal leaders. Now with Ulster he did. Yet as much as he took on that added responsibility, he decided he’d first and foremost have to lead by example.

“I just had to throw myself into the game and the cause and the easiest way to do that was to show it on the field. You can talk as much as you want but I wanted to show how much I was ready to buy into this and show people this guy was serious. That was the best way to take responsibility and get our standards up.”

By 2011 Ulster were back in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, and a year after his departure would reach the final itself, a mark of the legacy the likes of he and David Humphreys established in Ravenhill.

The plan upon joining Munster was to reach more European finals and win them but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s part of the reason why he’s not finished with this club and sport yet.

Physically he still feels that he can play on for another couple of years. Mentally too he feels he has the appetite to train and play on beyond his contract that expires in December.

The IRFU may or may not renew it. He’s a tighthead prop that’s already played for another country and for a union trying to develop and get gametime into players that could potentially play for Ireland in the spot, he’s something of an endangered species. But that’s outside of his control. He speaks and thinks in terms of what he can control. Keep playing as he has, like in the big win over Ospreys away last week, and his value to Munster and their European and domestic challenge may be greater appreciated by them.

“Munster supporters want to identify with a performance level. Usually performance takes care of the result. That’s something I learned from the other Munster players in the past. Anything below a certain baseline is not acceptable. People might say that Munster need to be given time to transition. We don’t feel like that as a team. We feel we need to perform now as a team and the youngsters are pushing that.

“One of the biggest things for me going forward is silverware, to get a reward for what the guys have put in the last couple of years.” He also wants a reward for himself. His 100th cap for Munster came in last year’s Pro 12 final only for Munster to lose heavily, while the two European semi-final defeats in the south of France still linger.

“Clermont away in Marseilles and an overthrown lineout. Or Toulon when a penalty or two less and we’d have been there.

“Those things still stick out in my mind, as clear as daylight. Playing in those big French cauldrons where there’s so much history and atmosphere; that drives you on to be there again.

I want to play so I can be in those stadiums again. That’s where you’re tested the most.” It’s funny how life has worked out. He’s now been as long playing out of South Africa as he was playing professionally there. Ireland is now home.

In time he may return to South Africa where he has a share in a guinea farm but he may not either. His three children were all born over here. The eldest is now speaking Gaeilge when she still can’t speak a word of Afrikaans.

He could see himself helping oversee or further assist some programme that develops young front-row players in the 19-21 age bracket. “At that age they haven’t yet formed habits that you can’t change. At 27, 28, especially if you play front row, you’re not going to want to come and change your technique.”

Who better than someone who’s been there, done that, won the big one.

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