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Rugby

15th Jun 2023

Levani Botia, the former prison officer that perfectly captures La Rochelle’s incredible rise

Patrick McCarry

Levani Botia

“Yes, this is true. That was my job.”

Oft-times, in preparation for interviews, you will do a bit of reading up on your subject and try to come at questions with a fresh slant. Reading that Levani Botia used to be a prison officer, though, that needed some confirming.

We were five days out from the Top 14 final and we once again had the prospect of La Rochelle going up against Toulouse. Along with Leinster, these are the three best sides in Europe with Stade Rochelais having bagged two Champions Cup titles in the past 13 months. Curiously, though, they have never won the Top 14.

Digging into the Levani Botia story will tell you a big piece of the La Rochelle story and why their rise over the past decade has been so incredible and noteworthy.

Botia arrives into the press briefing room at Apivia Parc and is still sweating from that morning’s exertions. He comes armed with a towel and mops his brow every so often as he ponders a question. He is 10 seasons at Stade Rochelais and although he has passable French, he prefers to have these group chats in English.

The 34-year-old, who can play centre but has mainly been used as a flanker this season, hobbled off early in his side’s Top 14 semi-final win over Bordeaux, last Saturday, but insists he will be good to face Bordeaux.

“My leg was painful and was getting worse as the game went on. I tried to go on but I got a second contact on the same leg. It’s a lot better now. I was worried that my season was finished but, thankfully, it is better now. It’s okay.

“The staff were worried and even me. I was not sure if it was broken, or not, because it hurt me so much during the game. I got a knee on the chest, too. But everything is okay now.”

These Fijians are made of hardy stuff. La Rochelle are made of hardy stuff. Will Skelton, Jonathan Danty and Botia all looked badly dinged up in that semi-final win but expect all three to be involved on Saturday night at Stade de France.

Levani BotiaLevani Botia of Fiji is tackled during a match against Tonga at the 2012 Gold Coast Sevens, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Prison work in the morning, rugby in the afternoon

Levani Botia was born and raised in Naitasiri on Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, in 1989. Long before he earned the ‘Demolition Man’ nickname, he was one of the legions of young Fijians obsessed with rugby.

Botia was in his early 20s and playing with with the Suva development side before moving on to line out with City Eagles. In a 2015 interview with The Fiji Times, he described how tight money was as he chased his rugby dreams:

“The hardship continued for me [in Suva, Fiji’s capital city]. I didn’t have bus fare and that time the bus fare was $1.20 so I had to think wisely how I would cater for my expenses.

“So every day after lunch I used to put on my shoes and walk [15 kilometres] to Suva from Nakasi for training, with $1.20 in my pocket for my fare back. My dream was bigger than what I have with me.”

He was playing away steadily but had to get a job to help out paying his way. He got himself a job as a prison officer but the role was flexible enough to allow him to keep chasing that rugby dream.

“My professional rugby started with the wardens [sevens] team. I did a half-day work at the prison and a half-day of training in the afternoon and every weekend I would play [with City Eagles] and start again from Monday to Friday.”

Further complicating matters for Botia, in a rom-com way, was the fact that Emele Veivuke, now his wife, was not a fan of rugby. Fiji has lots of young men that dream of nothing else and it can get in the way of them getting those 9-5 jobs. Emele was conscious of that but believed her Levani was working steadily as a prison officer and not chasing clouds.

That all changed when his double life was revealed in 2011. Levani had told Emele he had to go to Nadi, on the east coast of Fiji, for a workshop. That weekend, she turned on the TV and saw him playing for Fiji at the Pacific Games in New Caledonia. “I was so upset and angry with him,” she recalled.

Once the truth was out, though, and the couple sat down for a proper chat, Emele realised that not only was rugby his aching aspiration, it was an achievable dream. She was fully on-board and they were now a team. Three years later, now an established sevens star with Fiji, Emele and Levani had another big decision to make.

Levani BotiaLa Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara with Levani Botia before the Heineken Champions Cup Final, at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

Levani Botia on the move to France

When the call came, it was made by a true legend of Fijian rugby.

Sireli Bobo is revered in his homeland, when it comes to rugby. He was 28 when he arrived on the European club rugby scene but was already a known quantity through his Sevens career, and odd Test outings.

Bobo played for Biarritz in the 2006 Heineken Cup Final defeat to Munster but won a Top 14 title with them in the same season. He had a long stint with Racing 92 before signing for La Rochelle in 2014. He was not long at the club when he was asked if he knew of other Fijian players that might prosper in Pro D2 [the second division].

“I was surprised when I got the call [from Sireli],” says Levani Botia. “He was asking me to come for a medical and a trial with La Rochelle. I’ve loved it ever since arriving here. I will do everything I can for this club, and these people, every chance I get to play.”

In 10 seasons, Botia has racked up 180 games for La Rochelle, logging just shy of 11,000 competitive minutes and 10 times that in training and prep. He played left wing, right wing and centre in his his four seasons in France but started getting run-outs as a flanker from 2017 on.

Romain Sazy and Uini Atonio are two of the long-term Stade Rochelais veterans, along with Botia. 2017 was the season that two talented, hungry young players arrived – Gregory Alldritt and Pierre Bougarit. That was also the season Tawera Kerr-Barlow arrived from New Zealand. Those six players would be key in this club’s climb.

After two 9th place finishes, in their first seasons back (2015 and 2016), the club topped the regular season standings in 2016/17 and advanced straight to a semi-final, against Toulon, at Stade Velodrome in Marseille. That game was a tight and tense as you can get before Anthony Belleau broke Stade Rochelais hearts with an 80th minute drop goal.

La Rochelle missed out on the league playoffs, the following season, and Jono Gibbes arrived from Ulster in 2018. A season later, Gibbes stepped into a Director of Rugby role and Ronan O’Gara, fresh from two Super Rugby titles as Scott Robertson’s assistant at Crusaders, came in as head coach.

As we know now, Ronan O’Gara has achieved legendary status for the third time in his rugby career – Munster, Ireland and La Rochelle. He is fondly regarded in New Zealand, too, after a trophy-laden spell as assistant to Scott Robertson’s Crusaders. On May 20th, O’Gara led Stade Rochelais to their second, successive Champions Cup. Still seething over what he perceived as disrespect in the lead-up to the match, the Cork native declared, “We’re seen as the little team but that’s about to change.”

Botia is not the only La Rochelle player to speak in warm, awed tones about O’Gara. He says:

“There are a lot of things I have learned from past coaches but Ronan is a little more different from all of them. It’s more specific and across all different areas. Sometimes we will try to get something done and think it is right but he’ll say, ‘No, it’s still wrong’. He gives us a lot of time, and work, to learn everything, especially most of us who have played a long career but we still have more to learn from him.”

O’Gara inherited a really good squad. He has not only made the great, he has made them one of the greatest success stories in club rugby since the game turned professional. He has also helped to transform Levani Botia into a consistent, world-class operator. “He believes in me,” says Botia.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I had almost hit ‘publish on this article when I realised I had not fully explained how incredible a rugby player Levani Botia is. The man would be warmly welcomed into any rugby side, the world over, as a centre and yet is even better as a back-row. He is a dump-truck to shift off the ball, a breakdown demon, one of the best offloaders in the game, a go-to guy for game-changing plays, attack and defence, and still able to shift it for a guy who is in his mid 30s.]

Levani Botia

Hoping for one more crazy party at Vieux Port

Having won zero major trophies in their 125-year history [apologies to all Challenge Yves du Manoir fans out there], La Rochelle fans – from across the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region – have been given two huge reasons to party in the past 13 months.

The first was after their Champions Cup triumph in Marseille, last month. The second was only a few weeks ago after that title was defended and Leinster were left bereft, again. For both homecomings, Vieux Port down by the water-side with the port thronged and the big ferris wheel in the background, has been party central.

Some of the La Rochelle players, merry and light, took dips into the waters at the port and Levani Botia was asked if he would do likewise after this weekend’s final. Sensibly, he gave a ‘wait and see’ response. Don’t rule it out, though. If this team capture the Bouclier de Brennus it could get very wet and very wild.

It is clear to see that this team has a real bond, forged from that journey most of them have been on for years. Ronan O’Gara leans into that sense of brotherhood in the playing squad and team bonding sessions, and beers together, are often given the same priority as intense training sessions.

“The one thing I love about this team,” says Levani Botia, “is the bonding, especially the leaders, who organise a lot of dinners and lunches together.

“We often have beers together after games. Sometimes we will even have a surprise visit to a player’s house. They didn’t invite us, but we’ll show up anyway and do something to make it fun. It helps that most of the players stay together, especially on the rugby field.”

WATCH HOUSE OF RUGBY HERE:

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