Ronan O’Gara Rates Form Botia

While England head coach Eddie Jones’ pet project to breed a “hybrid” player capable of playing between the forwards and the backs may seem fanciful, Botia is proof that such versatility is possible.
04 May 2021 11:39
Ronan O’Gara Rates Form Botia
Levani Botia.

Unicorns are all the rage in the NFL (National Football League) draft of college players finally drew to a close. A unicorn is that rare breed of player who has the physical attributes to excel in different roles and can potentially redefine their position.

Levani Botia is rugby’s unicorn. On Sunday the Fijian international who played at second five eight helped La Rochelle beat Leinster 32-23 in their Champions Cup semi-final clash. For the first time the French club in playing in Champions Cup final. But for Botia he would have been equally comfortable playing across the back row and, at a push, on the wing.

While England head coach Eddie Jones’ pet project to breed a “hybrid” player capable of playing between the forwards and the backs may seem fanciful, Botia is proof that such versatility is possible.

“I don’t think there’s an inside-centre in the world who can play the way he plays,” Ronan O’Gara, his head coach at La Rochelle, said recently.

As Ryan Lamb, his former teammate, tells the Sunday Telegraph, “Levani is a phenomenon – he is the only guy I know who can play in different position on the field at a world class level.”

At 6ft and a touch over 16 stone, Botia does not seem the most imposing specimen by the standards of some of the sport’s behemoths.

Pound for pound, however, few are stronger than Botia. His nickname at La Rochelle is ‘La Machine’.

Lamb tells a story of La Rochelle’s pre-season training when the squad were doing some strength testing on the bench press.

“Levs comes over and asked what the record is,” Lamb said.

“Our S&C (strength and conditioning) guy says 180kg but tells Levs that you have to have a warm-up.

“I don’t think he even did any stretches and he does it with ease. Then he puts the weights back and walks away like it is nothing.”

This makes him one terrifying proposition to tackle, particularly once he builds a head of steam.

He has the power to run straight over a defender or hand them off with a stiff arm.

Being a Fijian, Botia can of course also make you look foolish with a sidestep.

Even if you double-team him, he can get an offload away.

Equally, anyone foolish enough to run down his channel is in for a painful day.

As Lamb attests from training sessions, “it is like he is made of steel.”

There are numerous YouTube compilations which underline this painful point.

Lamb, who is now the attack coach of Hartpury College, said: “When you are in a bit of trouble to have that guy (Botia), the equaliser, to get you over the gainline and back on the front foot is great.

“I remember my first home game of the season, against Clermont in front of 18,000 with a new stand.

“First play of the game, I look for Levs, he throws a big mispass and we score down the right. I used to love watching him being a wrecking machine.”

Point of difference

But Botia’s biggest point of difference is his ability as a jackaller. Despite his height, Botia has the ability to squat extremely low and once he is set he is like a limpet.

During Lamb’s two seasons with La Rochelle, he saw teams change their tactics based on where Botia was defending.

“Him and Steffon Armitage are the two guys who are a class of their own when it comes to turning the ball over,” Lamb said.

“As soon as they are over it, they are almost impossible to get off. To have that guy at 12 or in the back row when a lot of teams attack they would avoid that area of the field, he is that good.

“You know you have a special player when teams are changing their gameplans. The only other players I can think teams would do that for would be Manu Tuilagi and George Smith.”

Unlike those players, Botia has only got the recognition his talent deserves relatively late in his career at 32.

He played for the Fijian 7s team and from there he came to the attention of La Rochelle, then a lower division team.

He arrived having only just recovered from a serious knee injury that a French surgeon told him should have ended his career.

Instead he has flourished on the Atlantic coast and quickly been taken to the town’s idol. “He’s a massive cult hero over there,” Lamb said.

“He’s worked so hard to get to where he is and deserves everything that comes his way.”

Edited by Simione Haravanua


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