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Cardiff Blues' European opener has personal significance for Liam Botham

First Team News | 10th December 2020

James Botham’s father Liam admits he cannot wait to be in a stadium to watch his son play “in the flesh” for Wales.

Until then, however, he will content himself with the next best thing – the televised clash between Botham’s Cardiff Blues and Newcastle Falcons on Friday night.

The two clubs just happen to be where Liam spent most of his own playing career and they clash head-to-head at Kingston Park in the opening weekend of the European Challenge Cup, a match that is live on S4C.

Flanker Botham junior made his debut against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup and then impressively held his place to take on England and Italy.

The physical effects of those efforts sees the 22 year old ruled out of this weekend's clash, but it won’t lessen Liam’s interest in a fixture that resonates with personal significance.

“My best times as a rugby player were with Cardiff and I should never have left there to join Newcastle,” says Botham senior, who played at the Arms Park between 1997 and 2000.

“I really hope that Cardiff beat Newcastle this Friday and that’s not just because of Jimbo. I just loved my time in Wales. The game had a special place in people’s hearts and the passion was amazing.

“I should never have left but I was only 22 and I was pressured by the RFU to go and play in England, if I wanted to play international rugby. I should have been strong enough to turn around and say no, because I was very happy playing for Cardiff.

“I enjoyed my first year at Newcastle and I still have some good memories. But I wouldn’t say I enjoyed my last year there.

“Leaving Cardiff when I did is still the biggest regret of my sporting career.”

Liam, a wing or centre, suffered a number of injuries during his time in the North East and although he toured South Africa with England, that red rose cap somehow just eluded him.

These days, the 43-year-old son of cricket legend Sir Ian has two replacement hips as legacy of a career that also took him into rugby league with Leeds Tykes.

If his heart remains in Cardiff from his days as a player, then his affection for the Blues has found fresh appetite thanks to James – “Jimbo” to the Botham dynasty, but “Jim” to head coach John Mulvihill and his players.

“Jimbo has done pretty well at Cardiff and in what’s he’s achieved. He’s only played 13 senior games for them so I think he should be fairly pleased with the way it’s gone.

“The Wales games went reasonably well and I think he is only going to benefit from that experience. I think he’s got a huge amount of talent and is only going to get better, but he knows he’s still got a lot to learn.

“Defensively, I think Jimbo is very, very sound. But now he has to build on that by learning from outstanding players alongside him like Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

“Those two could not be better examples for him and now it’s about building playing relationships with them.

“It was the same when I played at Cardiff. I built good understandings with the likes of Gareth Thomas, Leigh Davies and Rob Howley, so I was very lucky.

“I learned to hit certain lines playing with those guys and it’s the same with Jimbo. He will learn to read those guys next to him and he’s just hugely excited about the potential to be part of that young group of players building towards the next World Cup.”

Like the family of Alun Wyn Jones who were not able to see the Wales captain become the most capped rugby player of all time, Covid-19 restrictions meant the Botham clan were unable to watch James begin his Wales career.

“No-one was allowed in and that was fair and proper because of the rules. The whole family watched the games at home, which was a shame because we would have liked to have seen him inside the Principality Stadium alongside 70,000 other people.”

As for Friday night, with or without his son, Liam is backing Wales' Capital Region to kick-off their European campaign with a victory against a Newcastle side that have made an impressive start to the Gallagher Premiership, winning three out of three to lay second in the early table.

“Cardiff have had injuries and they’ve had all the guys away with the international squad. But they’re a talented team with a good record in this tournament.

“Newcastle have started the season well, Dean Richards is still doing a very good job in charge there, but you know what you’re going to get with Deano – 12-man rugby, especially in these conditions.

“But I’m backing Cardiff. I always do. I had great times as a cricketer with Hampshire, then in rugby at West Hartlepool, but without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest buzz I ever got out of my sport was playing rugby for Cardiff.”

S4C – Friday, 19:55 : Live coverage of the European Rugby Challenge Cup match between Newcastle Falcons and Cardiff Blues, from Kingston Park. English commentary available. K/O 8.00.