Sunday 17 November 2019

'I really think I can make Munster better this year'

Big Interview: Arno Botha

Arno Botha on the charge against the Toyota Cheetahs last month, during a stunning 80-minute performance by Munster’s new No 8
Arno Botha on the charge against the Toyota Cheetahs last month, during a stunning 80-minute performance by Munster’s new No 8

In 257 minutes of action, Arno Botha has made 45 carries, beaten nine defenders with four clean breaks and 10 passes completed along with one assist.

He also scored a first Munster try against Ospreys in just his third start. They're impressive statistics and the new Munster No 8, who came with a big reputation and two caps for the Springboks, has slotted in seamlessly.

The initial tan is now gone but he has settled into life in Limerick, where he lives with his wife, and goes to work hoping he can offer some insight into tomorrow's Champions Cup opponents Gloucester.

The former London Irish back-row faced off against the Cherry and Whites in the Premiership last season, and he is also very familiar with the big South African influence at Kingsholm.

"Johan Ackermann was one of the key factors that turned the Lions around. They went from not being in the Super Rugby to two Super Rugby finals in a row and then their third one again in June," says Botha.

"Something that he can do is bring a team together. If you stick with him he is good. And the people that he has supporting him there.

"He is a famous guy in South Africa and as a former player also.

"It's going to be a very good test for us. I played against Gloucester last year when I played with London Irish. They are a very good side.

"But it's a new season. There are a few new players there and you can only see what's going to happen when we play."

The Modimolle native, who turns 27 next Friday, could well have been lining out for Ulster in Paris this weekend.

Before his move from the Blue Bulls to London Irish in January 2018, Botha had agreed terms to sign for Ulster. However, the move fell through in May of last year.

But after a promising stay in London, he landed a dream move to Ireland, where he linked up with a few more familiar faces in Munster.

"I knew that Johann van Graan was here, I knew CJ Stander came a few years ago. But back then, at the time, I was on a journey of my own at the club that I was at," Botha says.

Research

"It is not as if I am going to look at other clubs when I still have a few years still left at the current club I was at. I didn't do a lot of research but I knew Munster were a world-class club.

"They had a very rich rugby history and culture. They were the things I knew. I am not someone to do a lot of research into these things but those stood out."

Botha played with the Bulls between 2010 and 2017 and he had worked with Van Graan during his time there. Stander was also direct competition for the No 8 jersey.

However, it was the welcoming nature of the Limerick people that really made him feel at home, and Botha is thankful for the simple transition he experienced.

"I am from a small place in South Africa, I grew up in a small town so Limerick is a very good place for me. I enjoyed London a lot too," says Botha.

"It's more about adapting to where you are and knowing that you are there for the next year or two.

"If you are not going to like it you don't need to tell anyone about it in the first place. You just have to adapt to your surroundings and enjoy the time you have there. It's not going to be forever but just make the best of it. That's not my case here. I don't have to force myself to like it.

"Limerick is a really great city. Everybody knows everybody and the neighbours are all quite friendly. It's good to be here."

A knee injury cost Botha his Ulster contract in 2017, and when his calf gave him trouble at the end of last season it could have scuppered his chances of moving to Ireland again.

"It was a bit of a concern but I knew it wasn't too bad. I have been through much more," he adds.

"I knew with the facilities in Munster they would sort it out easily. It was just to get the timing right and play. That was basically the thing to think of. It happened exactly as we had planned.

"It's been a very good start for me, coming back from an injury again. It was a good way to settle in here. The good thing about it was how they managed it.

"The management and the physios and the coach are not throwing you into the deep end. They did it very well, how they just settled me into the system with training and gym-wise."

Botha thrived once he experienced his first minutes on the pitch against a few fellow countrymen.

The Cheetahs came to Limerick and left with a thumping 38-0 Guinness PRO14 opening-day defeat.

The new No 8 put in a stunning 80-minute shift and signalled his intent again the next time Munster played at home - he scored one of Munster's seven tries in victory over Ospreys.

He played all 80 minutes in the first three games and also featured off the replacements' bench in a historic win against Ulster at Thomond Park.

"There's a thing that we have in camp, culture before strategy. For me bringing a type of culture to put Munster first is really in my heart," says Botha.

Goals

"I don't just want to achieve my own goals throughout the year, I really think I can make Munster better and help the players out in any way I can. I have only been here for two months so it's difficult to think that I can. But for me I want to play and just make the team.

"It's not the easiest thing to do because there are so many good players in the team. So just to help have a positive environment, if I can do that it's good.

"The next few weeks are important for us as a team. It's important for us to keep focusing on what we want to do throughout the season.

"It started seven or eight weeks ago but we just want to be constantly improving."

Irish Independent

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