As he heads into his third campaign with Wales, James Botham is no longer the new kid on the block, and the Cardiff Blues star is now determined to take the next steps in his international career as he aims to cement his place in Wayne Pivac’s future plans.
Botham enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in 2020/21, impressing in Cardiff colours, having overcome a series of niggling injuries over the previous seasons.
His club form was rewarded with a debut on the international stage, make his Test bow against Georgia in November 2020. Five more caps and a Guinness Six Nations title followed, and Botham was subsequently named in the summer squad ahead of the upcoming Tests against Canada and Argentina.
With five uncapped players in the squad - and the absence of British & Irish Lions duo, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau - Botham is determined to make his mark in a highly competitive back row unit.
“This campaign is definitely now about trying to establish myself in this squad, especially with a number of boys away with the Lions,” said the Cardiff Blues academy product.
“That’s opened up senior roles in this set-up and it’s up to us to show our voice a bit more when you step into the team.
“It’s the third camp for me, so the national set-up is still quite fresh and new for me in the sense that it’s my first summer tour.
“But it’s also a case of trying to keep my head down and doing what I can to give myself the best opportunity to ensure that I stick around for future campaigns.
“There’s a lot of new caps around the place and hopefully they will get the opportunity to play and express themselves so it sets themselves up going forward.
“But for myself it’s a case of getting back out there, trying to better myself in every training session and every game and striving to be the best that I possibly can.
“With the likes of Tips and Faletau away, there are places open but the competition remains massive. You’ve got Taine [Basham] who has come in, as well as the experience of boys like Aaron Wainwright, Ross Moriarty and Navs.
“But you’d rather be competitive than everyone sat back thinking they’re happy to be here whether they play or not.
“To have that level of competition is great for everyone going forward - the experienced boys and the younger boys.
“It’s been really good and straight away we’ve been pushing each other, but we all get along really well.
“You can see that we’re trying to help each other as much as we can, because ultimately we all know that we won’t win any games by playing as individuals.
“If we can ensure that bond remains strong, then it will only benefit the whole team going forward.”
The Wales squad have travelled to north Wales for a training camp this week, as they step up preparations ahead of next week’s opening Test against Canada.
With a double-header against Argentina also on the horizon, Botham believes a change of scenery has been a positive, due to the Covid bubble,
The back row star added: “This is our first week up in north Wales, and it’s the main week for everyone together as a squad.
“But obviously with Cardiff finishing a week earlier than the other clubs in the Rainbow Cup, we were in for a few hard days of training over those two weeks before being joined by the rest of the squad during that second week.
“It’s been really tough so far and they’re really pushing us on the fitness side, getting the running loads into us.
“The intensity has flown up here in north Wales so there are some struggling bodies but it’s good to see everyone grinding and working hard.
“This week has been a massive change of scenery for the boys. We’re used to spending our time at the Vale, so coming up here has given us a chance to relax a little bit. You’re away from home and you’re able to switch off when you need to. It’s been nice.
“I’m massively looking forward to heading into game week. The turnaround is pretty quick this time around so weeks like this, where we can fully concentrate on the training ground, are so important.
“No one knows what the team is going to be at this point and that’s the good thing about it. Everyone is constantly under pressure to keep improving and showing their ability.
“We’ll have to see what happens. We’ll head into game week next week with two more to follow against Argentina and it will be interesting to see what the coaches go with. Hopefully I’ll get a run out and see what happens.
“Argentina are the one team that we’ve really seen progress at the rate of knots over the last few years.
“Some people might think that playing against Argentina is not the end of the world, but we’ve seen them stepping up and beating big teams like the All Blacks for the first time in their history.
“You know they will bring physicality and you know that you have to match that. They’re not to be messed with anymore and it’s a case of getting your roles right.
“We need to ensure that we perform well on the day because you need to be on top of your game physically, mentally and skilfully. Having crowds at the stadium will hopefully also be a big lift to the boys as well.”
Botham is one of ten Cardiff Blues players involved in Pivac’s squad, with uncapped Ben Thomas recently receiving his first call-up, while incoming lock Matthew Screech was added last week.
With Cardiff being the most represented club in the set-up, Botham is confident it’s a sign of the direction the club is heading in under director of rugby, Dai Young, and he’s eager to make sure the squad’s new faces are made to feel welcome in the environment.
“I definitely think the number of Cardiff boys involved is a sign of where the club is heading,” added the Welsh international.
“Over the last few months the environment has become a lot more driven and you’re not comfortable in your position. That’s the way it should be.
“Everyone is striving to be better than their competition and challenge for places in the team.
“That’s brought everyone together in the squad and you’ve seen that in the performances in recent months, which is why there’s been an increase in the number of Cardiff players involved in the Wales squad.
“I think the potential has always been there but now we’re starting to express that and showing what we’re about.
“It’s been a very eventful season for many reasons, and there’s been a lot of highlights for me on a personal level.
“It’s one where I’ve managed to string a run of games together and play regularly, having had a bit of luck with injury.
“It’s been great for me to progress as a player and go on to win my first Wales caps. But now, in this third campaign, it’s about continuing that progression.
“If I can manage that then hopefully I can do everyone around me proud and show everyone what I can do.
“The good thing I found when I first linked up with the Wales squad was how everyone was very welcoming and the senior boys were great with me.
“You’re in the changing room with the likes of Foxy [Jonathan Davies], Alun Wyn Jones and they’re all great with the younger boys in the squad.
“I got on well with them, they were welcoming from the start and they’re happy to take you by the scruff of the neck and help you through the experience.
“Now, for the six uncapped boys involved this time around, it’s my role to welcome them in and help them through it.
“I want to do what I can to ensure they get their first caps and get them through the whole experience from the build up right through to game day.
“Everyone needs to buy into it as a team and that’s where we’ll get the results from.”