- Arno Botha, one of the Bulls’ marquee signings under Jake White, doesn’t mind being labelled a “prodigal son” for returning to Loftus three years after he had left.
- The 28-year-old, a two-cap Springbok, though, isn’t fazed by such perceptions and admits he’s back to make a difference and potentially revive his international ambitions.
- Known for his love of engaging with people, Botha has become a player with an immense thirst for knowledge by learning from others.
Somewhere between Limerick and Pretoria, Arno Botha’s “rugby book” is making its long trek back to South Africa.
For the buffs among us, the journal should make for fascinating reading – a collection of personal insights on the game, be it about a match in general or his own performances.
“I write a lot of things down,” the two-cap Springbok, back at Loftus as one of Jake White’s marquee signings, told Sport24.
“Much of it about introspection, what I did during a game and what I thought I should be doing in the next. I believe it’s a valuable resource when I want to take stock of what I achieved during a season and also helps me prepare for new challenges.
“Sometimes it even sounds mundane. I’d write about a game in wet conditions or a sunny day in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs, a game you’d consider ideal for running rugby only to realise that after seven minutes your lungs are burning because of the thin air.”
The imposing, versatile 28-year-old loose forward cultivated that habit during a productive two-year stint at Munster in Ireland, which revived a career stalled by a litany of injuries, notably a fourth-minute knee injury in his second Test back in 2013.
In fact, it stems from a love for interpersonal connections, evident in the fact that he was the Junior Springboks’ captain in 2011.
“Obviously with the rugby I learned a lot of things. But what I really enjoy is talking to people, to gain an understanding of how they do things and what makes them tick. It’s valuable to gain an insight into different personalities,” said Botha.
“A lot of South African players, particularly Afrikaners, are sometimes quite set in our ways, probably because we’re only used to a single way of doing things. It’s very enriching when you expose yourself to people who think differently and adapt their methods accordingly.
“What are their reasons for doing it that way? Find out and start walking a path with those people, build a relationship. I thoroughly enjoyed that process, it’s probably the area I grew in most from a personal and professional perspective.”
Naturally, that extended into his preparation as a player.
Watching more rugby
Told about it, Botha gives a wry smile.
“When I went overseas, I made a conscious decision that I was going to watch more rugby and focus on it. It was a personal thing, never because I ever felt that the (intellectual capital in Ireland) was better (than South Africa). I don’t plan on getting involved in coaching in future, I just really wanted to interrogate things,” he said.
“I wanted to know why we did something the way we did on the field. Munster is a very detail-orientated club, so it was an amazing fit, a real opportunity to dovetail my desire for knowledge with a team that thrives on it.
“I became aware of small details, but ones I now consider very important. It was important for me to open myself to that knowledge. It wasn’t just about going to practice and then going home. Almost daily, you ask yourself: ‘How can I be better today?’ And that gives one great purpose.”
And better he’s definitely become; a premium player.
Initially only signed for one-year at Thomond Park, Botha was so influential that his stay was summarily extended.
The truncated 2019/20 season saw him truly flourish and regain prominence, which is why his return to Loftus has generated so much excitement.
But it’s not just form and overall pedigree that makes his presence so significant.
It’s the fact that he’s a home-grown talent – one of Modimolle’s favourite exponents – a man with blue blood in his veins.
Given White’s concise vision for the Bulls, one can’t underestimate the symbolism of making Botha one of his key players.
Can he be considered a prodigal son?
“I don’t think I would mind either way. That’s a perception and, to be frank, it’s a positive one. But I know why I’m here,” said Botha.
“I have my reasons. I want to play for the Springboks again, make a name for myself locally again. It was always in my plans to play for the Boks again. I never let that dream go.
“I was actually planning to staying in Europe, but things just fell into place to come back. A conversation with Jake; his vision swayed me. I’m not a flaky guy, but everything just felt right.
“Even if people felt I was too old to come back, I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m here to make a difference.”