Arno Botha might’ve been recruited predominantly for his imposing ball-carrying and robust defence by the Bulls, but there’s definitely a significant symbolic dimension involved too.
The 28-year-old flanker was unveiled as the franchise’s fourth high-profile signing on Friday, joining fellow Springboks Duane Vermeulen, Gio Aplon and Marcel van der Merwe as new director of rugby Jake White’s blueprint takes an encouraging initial shape.
However, unlike the other three, Botha’s return has the potential to really stir home-grown pride among supporters and players within the catchment area again.
Willem Strauss, Blue Bulls president, had revealed that sentiment last week already when commenting the former Junior Springbok skipper “would be a key player” and has “Bulls blood pumping through his veins”.
White clearly agrees.
“Arno is a proud son of Loftus, and there is no doubt that the fans will be ecstatic to see him back. He started his rugby journey here and played all of his junior rugby in blue,” the World Cup-winning former Springbok coach said.
“It’s no secret that we are in the process of building something very special at Loftus, and Arno is going to be a huge part of that.”
Whether Botha’s deep roots at Loftus translates into added responsibility such as captaincy remains moot for now, which is perhaps for the better as that risks overshadowing that he’s back first and foremost as one of the most accomplished loose forwards in the country.
“There were big things expected from him from a young age, and he has now grown into a complete and well balanced loosie,” said White.
Botha was indeed fast-tracked into the Springbok setup under Heyneke Meyer as the 22-year-old following an encouraging Super Rugby campaign in 2013, only to sustain a serious knee injury in his second Test.
A litany of setbacks then followed, thoroughly undermining his mission to regain form consistently.
Ulster came knocking with an offer in early 2017, only for Botha to injure his knee again and subsequently fail a medical.
With the termination of his Bulls contract agreed before that setback already, he suddenly found himself in limbo.
A short-term loan to London Irish was merely a bit of a distraction before Johann van Graan, shortly after assuming his duties at Munster, took a punt on him.
The results have been spectacular.
Botha had an outstanding season in the PRO14 before its suspension, emerging as a profitable try-scorer along with a huge amount of carries and an excellent 93% tackle success rate.
More importantly, the body is holding up.
– Compiled by Heinz Schenk