The back row was plucked from obscurity – and a job in a high-security prison – and hopes to drive Fiji to their first World Cup semi-final

At times on the pitch, Levani Botia’s mind drifts. The flanker thinks back to his childhood, walking up mountains to find enough reception to watch the Flying Fijians, whom he will represent in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final against England on Sunday.

He also recalls his days as a prison warden in Suva, an experience he calls “difficult” with no little understatement. “It’s one of my memories, it’s something that helps me on the rugby field,” Botia said. “I know when things are hard, I think about where I started. Life inside is different. Sometimes it encourages me, it’s difficult.

“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. But I stayed there and liked it as well.”

“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 in a prison. It was not my call. But I played a game and the coach of the warden team found me a small club to play for and they invited me to play sevens.”

‘I had to leave the prison to play in France’

When his focus returns, Botia becomes “demolition man”, a player capable of single-handedly detonating England’s World Cup with his ferocious contact work on either side of the ball and his game-changing jackalling ability. “It’s very important [the jackalling] but he picks and chooses,” Fiji forwards coach Graham Dewes said. “It’s not like he attacks the ruck every time. When the opportunity arises, the demolition man will probably be there.”

Four years ago, England got Japanese scrum-half Genki Okoshi, who was in camp with them, to perform the role of Springbok No 9 Faf de Klerk in training before the World Cup final, right down to wearing a blond wig. Unfortunately for Steve Borthwick, there is no one capable of replicating either Botia’s physique, which former team-mate Ryan Lamb once said was “made of steel”, or the most unique skill-set in world rugby.

No other player has played both inside centre and flanker to a world-class level as Botia has done for La Rochelle, whom he joined on an initial trial in 2014 on the recommendation of Sireli Bobo. “I expected to come over for a medical joker, just for three months,” said Botia, who used to walk nearly 10 miles to training in Suva because he could only afford a one-way bus fare.

“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. So I worked every day, to try to find the right path for me. Luckily, I got a contract to play in France.”

‘Rugby is like something that goes through our blood’

Botia has gone on to win back-to-back Champions Cups with La Rochelle, where he is revered as their favourite adopted son, but the 34-year-old calls Sunday’s game against England a “one of the lifetime games” with Fiji having never reached a semi-final before.

So in the very early hours of Monday morning, thousands of children across Fiji will start trekking up mountains in pitch blackness with portable televisions and mobile generators, desperately trying to find enough reception to watch the quarter-final, which kicks off at 3am local time.

Botia knows because he was once one of those children. He grew up in the Naitasiri province on the main island of Viti Levu. Even by Fijian standards, it is considered off the beaten track. “They always said I’m from the bush,” Botia said. “I’m from the mountains.

“When I was a kid we had no 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.

“I think if you ask any Fijian, playing rugby now or young kids back at home, everyone loves rugby. When we are brought up, it’s something that’s running through our blood. We love rugby at school when we were kids. Back at home we’d sometimes try to play but didn’t have a rugby ball. So we’d use anything – empty bottles, some of us used a coconut or something – just to play rugby.”

If rugby is one of the central building blocks of Fijian culture then faith represents the other, with the squad being led spiritually by their ‘Talatala’ (reverend) Joji Rinakama after recent tragedies. Josua Tuisova’s seven-year-old son died during the tournament and this week, Sireli Matavesi, the father of hooker Sam, also passed away, but both players are expected to play against England.

“The majority of the population in Fiji are Christian, so the Bible gives us a way of looking at ourselves, the right path to go,” Botia said. “We believe we can get strength from it, and God looks at us. Spirituality motivates us every time, especially when we wake up in the morning. We say a prayer every morning, before we have a meal, and before we get on the field, before training. It’s something normal for us to do. It’s not a culture, it’s normal because we’re Christian. It helps us a lot because we are far away from home. We live with it.”