Home At the Bottom of a Ruck At the Bottom of a Ruck – Evan Botha

At the Bottom of a Ruck – Evan Botha

Former Griquas, Aurillac and Pau forward Evan Botha Speaks from the Heart about the Mental Challenges that Face Modern Professional Rugby Players. Evan Battled back from Numerous Long Term Injuries and also a Ban for Drugs that he Eventually had Quashed due to his Innocence but at the Age of Thirty his Career came to a Premature end and the Real World Outside of Rugby Proved a Difficult Proposition.

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Evan Botha
Botha played for Griquas in South Africa and then, Aurillac and Pau (Pictured in Green) in France

My earliest rugby memories were at Louw Geldenhuys school in Johannesburg, where I grew up.

I loved playing rugby right from the start and I was bigger than all of the other boys so it was a bit easier for me. To be honest, my parents always knew that if they gave me a ball of any shape and size then I would be happy.

Rugby was always my first choice though and at the age of 13 I made the provincial ‘B’ team. This was the Lions as they are known now.

I then attended High School at Linden in the Northern Suburbs of Jo’Burg and although this is quite a well know school, it isn’t for sport and specifically rugby. It’s famed for its academic and cultural studies. A lot of the presenters you see on television today came through this school as well as numerous, famous actors and actresses.

Fortunately for me, we had a strong group of athletes in my year and we played every sport together.

We were in the top league for rugby in Grade 8 and Grade 9, playing teams like Paarl Boys High and getting hammered every week by 100 points – with 20 minutes left to play.

School size was graded as small, medium and big basically and we left the big league to join the small school league where we started doing alright with our results.

We’d found our level and it wasn’t too long before we settled in the medium school league where again, we more than held our own.

I have to admit that I actually preferred cricket to rugby until about grade 10 but In grade 10 I actually started playing for the rugby 1st team, which was a year earlier than you’re supposed to but when you weigh 100kg and tower over everyone older then you can keep up with relative ease.

When I went into Grade 11 I was still undecided over cricket or Rugby but to my surprise I made the Craven Week team. I was the first student in ten years from the school to make the team. We had an incredibly strong squad. I was blindside flank and Cobus Grobbelaar was on the openside. Willie Wepener was hooker and both of these guys have had successful Super Rugby careers with the Lions and also the Bulls in Wepener’s case. Quintin Geldenhuys was one of the locks and he went on to win over 60 caps for Italy. It was a great team.

After school I move to Rand Afrikaans University (RAU). It is called UJ now, University of Johannesburg.

I’d managed to get a bursary and I was also in the Lions U19’s at this stage. Not only that but I had a junior contract with the Lions as well. It was only about a R1000 a month but it was amazing that I had one and it meant I had some spending money at University.

I didn’t do a great deal of studying in my first year as I concentrated on rugby and the social scene and in year 2 it soon became about rugby as well.

I decided to play for my residence that I stayed in and right at the beginning of the season I tore my knee ligaments and that was me out for the whole year. Completely out of the game for the season.

This was heart breaking as I’d decided to go hard on the rugby and only take a few subjects at Uni to do so. It was a tough time for me but I knew I was young and that I’d come back. I distracted myself for the year but knew I had one more year at Uni ahead of me.

I’d spend my off-season training with the athletics team to make sure I kept my fitness levels up and in that close season I did just that.

I was lucky to keep my junior contract with the Lions so I was all guns blazing for the third year.

I’d been missing for a year and I was determined to get my place back. I was in superb form pre-season and my coach even said to me that I had ruined his plans because I’d given him a huge selection headache. He had a selection of the team in his head but told me I couldn’t be ignored.

I had made the first team and I would say that this was the most fun I’ve ever had playing rugby.

Just to top this off, at the end of the season I made the Springbok student’s team. That was amazing but it was the year that they made the controversial decision to remove the Springbok and just have the Protea flower on it so I never got my jersey with the Bok badge unfortunately. It still annoys me to this day because a South Africa rugby shirt must have the Springbok on. It just has to.

In 2005 I was offered a chance to play for the Griquas so I left Uni, finished my studies remotely through UNISA and left for Kimberley.

Griquas RugbyMy first full time professional contract was on the table so I packed up my blue Citi Golf and made my way to Kimberley.

Being a city boy, this wasn’t an easy transition as I was leaving my friends and family behind to go to a place where there is not a lot going on. compared to Jo’Burg

I had to just concentrate on my rugby and in my first season we won the Vodacom Cup which was huge. I was voted forward of the year whilst playing at either lock or blindside flank.

It was a great year as I lived with Jacques Burger and we became awesome buddies. I was immersed in rugby.

During the first three months I also my met my wife so Kimberley was turning out to be a good move for me.

I was at Griquas for 3 years and I played 60 times for them, earning a Super Rugby contract along the way with the Cheetahs. I couldn’t break into the team unfortunately and that was a tough period. You’d get close to the team and then a Springbok would come back and push you down the pecking order.

Around this time, the exodus of players to France had started and an agent contacted me about a move. My wife and I discussed it and we thought it would be a great idea to start a fresh, new life in France.

In hindsight, I feel that I may have given up on my Super Rugby dreams a season or two earlier than I should have.

It was still an amazing experience and I’m glad we did it.

AurillacI joined Aurillac in Pro D2, the second division in France, along with a number of other Griquas players.

The first few months were some of the toughest of my life. Aurillac is one of the coldest places in France and there was next to no one, including those at the club that could speak English.

Aurillac was also a level down from what I was used to but I knew I could shine and gain other opportunities higher up the leagues.

Watching my wife struggle in this environment was the toughest part. Aurillac is extremely rural and here she was, without a car, on her own, no job and fully reliant on me, who she had left everything behind in Kimberley for. I was training and she was at home alone. It was hard.

I’ll never forget my first game in France at Oyonnax. The game was delayed because of snow. They only cleared the lines, painted them red and we played on in 20cm deep snow.

We played against Toulon that season, the season that all their superstars had started joining. We only lost by seven points but after the match my world was flipped upside down.

I was having a beer with Victor Matfield in the changing rooms and we were both called into the drug testing room. Nothing to worry about for me as I was the cleanest athlete you could meet with regards to drugs.

The test came back positive for something that had been detected in my system.

I had been tested positive for a blocker or masking agent. I couldn’t believe it.

To cut a long story short, I was losing my hair at 25 years of age and after visiting a dermatologist, I was prescribed something that would help. I triple checked with him that it was ok to use as I was a professional athlete and he assured me that there were no traces of anabolic steroids in it. Fine, no problems I said.

He was right on that but what I didn’t know was that it had a masking agent in it.

I hadn’t done anything wrong, I was re-tested, I had proof that I had been prescribed this but it all fell on deaf ears as I was duly suspended for two years.

To this day, this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. The week before this test I had been contacted by Montpellier who had said they were interested in signing me. I knew that the dream of moving up to the Top14 was over for now.

The newspapers the next day reported I had been suspended for using Anabolic Steroids which couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was even in the newspapers back in South Africa. The whole situation was terrible.

They assumed I was hiding something that I hadn’t even taken and as soon as claims like this come out your name is tarnished and thrown down a drain instantly.

The club helped me and the process started for the appeal.

I had to appeal as I literally had nothing. What was I going to do without rugby? Go back to South Africa and do what? Here I was in France, with my wife, staring down the barrel of a two-year suspension having made an honest mistake.

3 months in to the ban and we had a hearing in Paris. My doctor back in SA had written to them saying I had checked with him on the contents of the treatment I was taking and that he didn’t know there was a masking agent in it.

That said, they believed that the onus was on me, as a professional rugby player, to check as well.

The hearing was so invasive and even had my wife in tears. They were questioning her as well as me through a translator. It was awful to watch and upset me deeply. The club’s name was also dragged through the mud. The whole ordeal was horrific.

I let the hearing get the better of me and I stood up, lifted my shirt up and asked them whether I had the body of someone who takes steroids? I’m naturally big but not the strongest in the gym.

They went around the room asking people their opinion and there was a former French fly-half in the room whose name escapes me. They asked him straight whether he believed me and he said, without hesitation, that he did.

He saved me that day, I have no doubt in that. This was the toughest doping agency in the world, the doping agency that caught Lance Armstrong and he made them believe me.

The sentenced was reduced to six months and as I had already served four months of that it worked out quite well and I only missed one game as the ban was served over pre-season.

My first game back I was unstoppable. I’d had my life in rugby taken away from me one minute and to be back on the field the next was an awesome feeling. I was so relieved.

I was playing well but suddenly, all attention from the Top14 had ceased. My name was tarnished and I struggled with the frustration of this. Not a single club was interested in me.

PauFinally, Pau came knocking on my door. This was another huge relief. My wife and I had been trying to get out of a hole that we felt we were in by living in Aurillac.

Pau was less rural, a bigger town but still in the countryside and close to the South Coast. It ticked all the boxes for us.

I hit the ground running at Pau and played 80 minutes 10 games in a row. The crowd and the coaches were loving me.

Evan BothaThen, the biggest slice of bad luck hit my career. We went down to the South of France to play and on arrival we were told that the game was off due to the outbreak of swine flu.

The coaches decided to put us through an intense training session instead. No one wanted to do it of course because no one is mentally right for it.

What happened? I tore my knee ligaments in the other knee to the one I had done before. My ACL had ruptured.

It was so bad that it took me 11 months to recover. I was very sad for those 11 months but I knew that it was part of the game. I was 26 and also knew time was on my side but I couldn’t stop thinking that swine flu of all things, had caused my injury because it caused our game to be cancelled. 

It was tough to watch my teammates week in and week out. The first few months was ok but after 7 months I was struggling to watch. My knee was not getting better and I was doing rehab on my own.

After 11 months I was asked if I was ready. Of course, I was going to say yes as I was craving rugby but the doctors shouldn’t be putting decisions like that into the player’s hands.

My heart said I was ready but my body was telling me something different. My knee wasn’t perfect and I was holding back a bit.

I played six games in the first team straight whilst hiding the pain.

We then played in the South of France and I moved a young second row out of the way in the lineout because he didn’t know where to stand and I had to take control. It was a defensive lineout but we were in their 22 so I thought if we can win this then we could edge ahead in a tight game.

Up I went, came down and fell. I looked at my ankle and it was facing in the wrong direction. A full dislocation.

I was screaming in pain and every time a player came near me to see if I was ok they had to turn away as it was too gruesome for them to see.

They put the ankle back in the right position on the field right in front of the crowd and then off to hospital I went.

I can’t begin to tell you how tough this time was. I’d just had 11 months out and now my ankle ligaments were torn, it was in agony and I knew it was bad.

I was asked how the pain was in my foot but the real pain was in my heart. I’m not a man that gives up but I’d just come back from a huge injury and had picked up another after six matches. Mentally that was tough to take.

The diagnosis came through and I was gutted to find out it was another six months of rehab.

My ankle wouldn’t get any better though. Six months came and went but no progress at all.

I travelled to doctors the world over to try and get some positive news and have more operations but it never came. I had to watch the end of one season and the beginning of the next go by from the side lines.

I travelled to Bordeaux to see a doctor and the news I had been dreading came.

My career was over.

I didn’t believe it at first but I also I knew I couldn’t keep living like this. 18 months of physio and pain, sometimes two or three times a day. It hurt so much physically.

I was having days that I didn’t even want to go to rehab. Days where you told yourself you didn’t even care anymore. You work so hard and every time I drove in to town towards Pau and the treatment, I was forcing myself to stay positive.

What was I going to do?

I’d been reporting to the club every day and no one even knew what to tell me to do as nothing had worked. I was outside looking in and wasn’t part of the team any more.

I tried to help with coaching and lineouts but it wasn’t the same.

There were so many emotions but one that I remember distinctly was that my children, who were born in France, never got to see me play.

My house needed to be vacated, the car had to go back to the club and my son, who was born 8 days before we were supposed to leave the country, couldn’t fly because he was too young. It all happened so fast but Pau were amazing and let us stay for a few extra weeks and keep the car.

That was it, I was 30 years old and had to move my whole family back to South Africa with the bit of insurance money I had from the injury.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I had at least six more years in me. All the thoughts and plans for the future had gone up in smoke. It was terrible in all honesty.

One minute I was being carried on people’s shoulders and the next I had to start a new life outside of the rugby bubble back in the real world.

We stayed with my parents in Jo’Burg and then came down to Cape Town and stayed with my in-laws for a while.

I’ve gone from hero worshipped to staying with my parent’s in-law, no income and two children to support.

I started interviewing for jobs but at the age of 30 I would have to start at the bottom of the ladder on minimum wages.

My father-in-law went 50/50 with me on a liquor store business in Paarl but I had never worked a day in my life and he had his own job to worry about.

12-hour days, six days a week. It was so tough in the beginning. I only saw my children on a Sunday and add into that, the business was struggling.

This was a low period as I was doing 65 hour weeks, we weren’t making money and I had left a team environment to sit all alone in a tiny office in the corner of the store.

I can’t begin to tell you how I missed that camaraderie being part of a team brings. I was so lonely in that store and I remember so little about the first two years of my son’s life.

We did it though. I am so stubborn and never give up. Like my injuries, this had to work.

There were dark days in the store but now the business is thriving and I have time to watch my kids sport and spend time with them.

I look back now on that transition into the ‘real world’ and I realise that no governing body, in France or South Africa offered me any support whatsoever. Absolutely nothing.

I approached SARPA (South African Rugby Players Association) to try and get into sport and they tried to help but nothing happened.

I just became a number overnight. When you finish you are just a number. Gone. I know so many ex-players that feel the same.

So much so that if I had my time again, I would think very carefully about becoming a professional rugby player.

My career was eight years, they were amazing but eight years as a professional rugby player is very short.

Mentally it was a rollercoaster and I’m not sure battling what I battled was fully worth it. Rugby was who I was though.

The advice out there is minimal as well. These player’s, myself included, are not making provisions for the future whilst playing. I thought I had another six years ahead of me and it was gone in an instant. Thankfully my father-in-law helped me because I don’t know what I would have done otherwise.

I had some cash in the bank but I had no credit history in South Africa and there is no way I would have got a loan to start a business.

You don’t get given anything for who you were, it’s just time to battle for who you are now.

Imagine trying that outside of professional sport. You are a doctor one day and then someone tells you can’t be that anymore and you need to start at the bottom of the accountancy ladder.

If I could give any young rugby player with a contract at a super rugby franchise a bit of advice, it is to make provisions for the future. Invest your money in property or something substantial because your career can be over in the flick of a switch.

Look at Pat Lambie now. He’s still young and he’s finished.

Mentally, it can break you. Look at Dan Vickerman, he was the Australia Captain at the time he took his own life.

I read a book called ‘Locker Room to Board Room’ and it states in there a scary stat about marriage break ups when rugby players finish because they don’t know how to cope outside of that bubble. It also says that only 10% or rugby players are financially stable after finishing rugby. That’s frightening. We’re talking about 30 times capped Springboks here. Imagine falling from that height?

Support needs to be given to the guys at school level as well. If some one who is in the Springbok setup at 17 or 18 gets a career ending injury now I really don’t know how they would cope with that.

The thing I miss the most though is being part of a team. I crave it!

I don’t know how to describe this and I am not a psychologist but once or twice a year I have the most vivid dreams about playing rugby. I can feel it, I can feel the tackle, the hit, jumping in the lineout and scoring a try.

It’s recurring and they are so real. I am always wondering why they happen but I think it was the lack of closure on my career. I never got to fully shut that door.

I was invited last year to play for a SA Legends side against Corne Krige’s Boys High Legends. I had to do it. I had to play. I would only be able to do 20 minutes but also my son could finally see me on the field.

I was so nervous, Krige was smashing people about like he was 25 again and the physicality was high intensity.

I came on worrying about my ankle but after that first hit I was in the game and all worries were gone. I went flat out, smashing into rucks and making tackles.

It was awesome! I got my fix. Sport is a drug and I needed that fix. Part of a team, beers afterwards in the changing room. The feeling that I missed and craved so much was there for one final time.

Closure. Finally.

So, that’s my story, short and sweet.

It was a rollercoaster that started so well. France was a horrible experience for me but I don’t look back at it with bitterness as that’s just part of rugby.

Nothing can prepare you for life after rugby though. It’s tough.

You are yesterday’s news.

 Evan Botha 

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