Fiji’s Levani Botia: From prison officer to rugby’s ‘Demolition Man’

MARSEILLE, France — Trying to shift Fiji back-row Levani Botia once he’s clamped on to the ball at the breakdown is like “hitting a wall,” according to one rival player. Botia is one of the world’s best back-rows, having started his career in the centres, and if England are to get past Fiji this weekend, then they’ll have to nullify his incredible skillset.

England have trained this week with Botia in mind, using one of their own to act in the role of the 34-year-old. The man himself, nicknamed “La Machine” and “Demolition Man”, finds this a little strange. Rugby’s ever-changing nuances mean breakdown intricacies need a supercomputer to decipher, but Botia sees it with perfect clarity. “What I do in the field, people say it’s hard, but nothing’s hard,” Botia said on Thursday. “Anyone can do that. If you play rugby you can do it, it’s not difficult.

“I just look what’s in front of me. I just look what’s good for the team, I choose whatever is right in the field. When the game is on, people are tired, the right time is going to come.”

It’s all wonderfully understated, but Botia has already left a trail of rugby carnage in his wake. He’s one of the most admired players in the sport — extremely quiet and humble but with the ability to influence a match in the blink of an eye. Saracens found that to their cost against La Rochelle in the Champions Cup in April. Other players on the opposition talk about him with a sense of admiration, and quiet awe.

“The best thing about him is his technique,” England No.8 Billy Vunipola said earlier this week. “He’s very fast at deciding whether to go for the ball or not. Then it’s his height and low centre of gravity. If you give him an opportunity it becomes tough, but it’s not just him.”

That line “it’s not just him” is a given when assessing Fiji’s numerous threats, as selflessness anchors their mantra. “It’s not just me, I work with the team, I don’t work alone every time,” Botia says. “That’s what the people say. For me I just focus on how teamwork brings everything together.”

Botia’s path to international rugby is relatively unique, but starts back in Fiji as a rugby-obsessed youngster. “I’m from the main island [in Fiji], Viti Levu and my province is Naitasiri in the middle interior of the island,” Botia said. “They always said I’m from the bush, I’m from the mountains.

“I think if you ask any Fijian, playing rugby now or young kids back at home, everyone loves rugby. Back at home we would sometimes try to play but didn’t have a rugby ball. So we would use anything — empty bottles, some of us used coconut or something, just to play rugby. It’s something that gave us a challenge every time because we watched our brothers who have been playing a few years when we were kids.

“When I was a kid we did not have electricity, but we had a generator. So we took it to the mountain where we tried to find a reception to watch the TV. Rugby is like something that goes through our blood, it does not matter your age. We just climbed the mountain. They are always behind the players when there’s a Fiji game.”

On Thursday, 10,600 miles away from Viti Levu, he recalled these moments to a small group of reporters in Marseille with assistant coach Graham Dewes alongside him.

Dewes was part of the Fiji team which reached the 2007 quarterfinals having scored in that famous win over Wales. They were the last Fiji side to get through to the knockouts, and when they secured that shock in, as chance has it, Botia was watching on from Fiji in his job as a prison officer.

“I think that’s what rugby gave to me. It took me somewhere I didn’t expect to be. I didn’t expect to be working into a prison,” Botia said. “It was not my call.

“Working in a prison is not simple, as we can see from the outside. But working inside is a little bit difficult. You’re dealing with the people who have done something wrong, breaking the rules, the law. So it’s not easy when you are inside there. It’s one of my memories, it’s something that helps me on the rugby field. I know when things are hard, I think about when I start. Life inside is different. Sometimes it encourages me, it’s difficult.”

He played in the Warden’s Sevens side, and caught the eye of the Fiji Sevens legend Waisale Serevi in a local competition and was fast-tracked into the national setup where he played on the world stage. “I played a game and the coach of the warden team found me a small club to play for and they invited me to go and play sevens,” Botia said. “After that I switched my mindset to play rugby sevens until I had an option in 2013. It was my first [Test] for the Flying Fijians and my first game was against Portugal.”

Botia came on as a second-half substitute in the centres and scored in their 36-13 win in Lisbon. “That gave me a confidence to try to change my mentality to try to focus on the 15. So I worked on it every day in training, and thanks to some of the help of my family and friends and some of the experienced players helped me for my journey.”

In 2014 PROD2 side La Rochelle came calling. “I worked every day, to try to find the right path for me. Luckily, I got a contract to play in France,” he says. “That was part of my dream when I was a kid.” Botia remembers watching Rupeni Caucaunibuca tear it up for Fiji in the 2003 World Cup and then for Agen and Toulouse. Then there was Vilimani Delasau, one of their other stars, who played for Clermont Auvergne, Montauban and Toulouse.

“I expected to come over for a medical joker, just for three months,” Botia added. “When I came it was almost the end of the season, five games left. So I decided to leave the prison. I had to leave because I had the opportunity, and I was excited to take it.”

Botia was switching between the centres and wing, but over the past decade he’s since transitioned through to the back-row. Having seen both sides of the coin gives him a unique perspective on the game. “I do my homework every time,” Botia says. “I try to look at training and the game every day, and see the mistakes I make on the field. I learn everyday so I need to improve what I make, improve on what the last mistakes I have. Rugby’s not perfect, so I need to do some things better every day.

“I’m focused on the forwards. Right now, I’ve just closed the book on the backline, stick to what the coach wants and follow the gameplan. It’s easy for me.”

He makes it sounds simple, but of course it’s an intricate job. Botia deflects praise, so it’s down to Dewes to sum up what makes him so special. “One of the best things about Levani is that he can lead through his words, but he can lead big time through his actions,” Dewes says. “He has his experience here in France and that also helps, especially for our younger players to know what a true professional looks like.

“For example, when we were driving over here, I asked him what his plans are today. He said ‘I’m just going to relax, rest my legs for training for tomorrow’. Some of the younger players will be out and about seeing the sights of Marseille, which is good, his focus is this game at the weekend. He’ll have plenty of time to do the sightseeing later.

“On the field it’s very important but he picks and chooses. It’s not like he attacks the ruck every time. When the opportunity arises, the ‘Demolition Man’ will probably be there.”

England will be monitoring the “Demolition Man” closely on Sunday in Marseille. Botia keeps to the same pre-game routine, just like any other day, where it’s anchored around prayer. He prays when he wakes up, and before every meal. Before they face England at the Stade Velodrome on Sunday, Fiji will huddle together and pray again. And then they will walk out and try to reach the semifinal for the first time, playing a game they love.

“It’s rugby, it’s not something to eat each other, it’s something we need to love, it’s our job,” Botia said. “We love playing rugby, it’s something that gives us passion and knowing each other, it doesn’t matter the colour, where you came from, it’s something that brings us together.

“I think this is one of the lifetime games, the best moment for the team, especially for the so many young boys in this team. To play at this level, the boys are excited to get on the field against England.”

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