There’s a strong case for Arno Botha to be considered the marquee item of the Bulls’ impressive shopping spree over the past few weeks.
The robust, skilful loose forward was last week confirmed for a return to Loftus amid much excitement.
It’s not difficult to pinpoint why: Botha, a two-cap Springbok, is an anomaly in the current local rugby landscape in that he’s a premium player returning to South Africa in his prime, not they other way round.
The 28-year-old had an outstanding season for Munster in the PRO14 and Jake White, the Bulls’ director of rugby, has unsurprisingly earmarked him as one of the anchors of his team.
“He’s an unbelievable acquisition for the Bulls,” Munster head coach Johann van Graan, a former assistant coach of the Springboks and Bulls, told Sport24.
“Naturally I’m a bit sad to see him leave, but I’m happy as a former Loftus fan too. Arno is a player that has so much to offer. In fact, I believe he’s playing the best rugby of his life for the past few seasons. I don’t think anyone should be surprised if plays for the Springboks again soon.”
Indeed, Botha seemed destined for international stardom early after captaining the Junior Springboks in 2011’s World Championship, scoring seven tries in five matches, and promptly being named South Africa’s Under-20 Player of the Year.
Two years later, he made his Springbok debut before a serious knee injury in his second appearance precipitated a difficult four-year period of indifferent form and continued niggles.
But the move to Limerick in 2018 bore fruit as Botha experienced a renaissance.
Van Graan noted that the versatile flanker’s core skillset was very much in place when the Irish giants snapped him up, but lists a mouthwatering list of value-adding tools that, if Botha settles quickly in Pretoria again, will render him one of the best players in the country.
“There actually wasn’t much of a risk involved in signing him,” said the Munster mentor.
“I coached him at most levels in South Africa. He was an experienced Super Rugby player and an international. He had a pedigree and we knew what he was capable of.
“I think only difference between the Arno that left SA and the one coming back is that he’s a more rounded player. Our coaching staff really worked hard and well on certain smaller details. (Former Wallaby flyhalf and senior coach) Stephen Larkham spent a lot of time with him working on his off-loading. We worked on his speed at the breakdowns and he also improved his presence at the line-outs, particularly in terms of jumping.”
That skillset raises the intriguing question of what position White is earmarking for Botha, though Van Graan insisted – and subsequently proved with his selections – from the outset that he wanted a player who can fulfil all three loose forward roles.
“He performed well for London Irish before we offered him a deal and even then he was showcasing his versatility. I wanted a player of the highest quality who can hold his own but also fill the void when the internationals are on duty, something that’s important in out setup,” said Van Graan.
More importantly, Botha returns to Loftus with his leadership credentials – evident so early in his career – intact.
“He’s been fantastic in that regard. He was one of the prominent leaders in our squad and he’ll be more than willing to do it at the Bulls too. Arno is one of the fittest and most dedicated players I’ve worked with in my coaching career.”