It may well have been a surprise to even James Botham when the Cardiff Blues flanker was called up to the Wales squad by Wayne Pivac this week.
After just 13 games for the first team, with only 11 of those coming in the Guinness Pro14 or European Challenge Cup, and even then only seven of those actually being starts, he will make his international debut on Saturday when Georgia come to Parc y Scarlets in the Autumn Nations Cup.
It is a meteoric rise for the back rower who played for the prestigious rugby school Sedbergh before coming to Cardiff through the Welsh Exiles programme, joining our Academy and playing for Cardiff RFC alongside earning Wales U18 and Wales U20 honours.
Injuries have pestered the 22-year-old along the way, but he has enjoyed a breakout spell since rugby returned after the Coronavirus lockdown, enjoying particularly strong performances against Ospreys, Zebre and Connacht. It’s no coincidence Cardiff Blues won all three of those games with Botham producing plays like this.
Defensively Botham is solid as a rock, with his stats so far as part of the best defence in the Pro14 belying the fact that he is only just starting out on his senior professional career.
63 tackles made from an attempted 66 for a 96% tackle success rate put him sixth in the Pro14 overall. Having only played four games so far, and going off inside 30 minutes against Ulster, it leaves him with an average of 18 tackles per game. Impressive stuff.
The dominant nature of the tackles will be key for Wales, who have operated a fairly passive defence so far allowing the opposition across the gain line and to generate quick ball far too easily, but what will be even more important is Botham’s work over the ball.
Botham has four turnovers to his name so far this season, sixth best in the Pro14 as a whole while working alongside Shane Lewis-Hughes and Olly Robinson, and has been a constant threat at the breakdown outside of that.
Looking at particularly the second and third clips above, the speed with which he can move around the breakdown and get in position over the ball is what sets him apart at the defensive breakdown and will be a huge asset to Wales who have either run without a primary jackal option or with James Davies getting penalised off the park so far.
Slowing down the opposition will be key defensively, but more than that the turnovers won cleanly will give Wales the chance to counter attack, an area where Scarlets were so dangerous under Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones.
Beyond those staples of his defensive game, Botham also has that sixth sense of an openside to be in the right place at the right time for spilled possession.
It’s possible to teach players many things when it comes to technical skills, or put a plan in place to make them stronger or more powerful, but some things you can’t teach. The first is possession of a rugby brain. Botham seems to see the game so clearly and has hardly made a wrong decision in the short time he’s been in and around the Cardiff Blues matchday 23.
The second thing is natural athleticism. Botham is a bit of a freak the way he’s so strong but also has a sharp turn of pace and can put in a step like that in the second clip above. He will be an asset to the more expansive attacking game that Pivac and Jones are trying to implement.
With 71 metres made from 23 carries in the Pro14 so far this season he’s averaging three metres per carry, more than Wales are this Autumn, and if he can work in tandem with Justin Tipuric and Aaron Wainwright against Georgia they should be able to give the team so dynamism that has been lacking thus far.
The scary thing is that Botham isn’t close to the finished article yet. Yes the call-up is probably a little early, and if available Taine Basham or Ollie Griffiths may have been selected ahead of him, but there’s no question that he’s up for the challenge and capable of making his mark at international level.
James Botham will be a multi-cap Wales international, so why not get on the road to that this weekend.