EXCLUSIVE: Former Springbok prop Deon Carstens chats to Sport24

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Deon Carstens. (Gallo Images)
Deon Carstens. (Gallo Images)
  • Former Springbok loosehead prop Deon Carstens, who played for the Springboks from 2002 to 2009, talks about South Africa’s front row depth and the starters for this Saturday.
  • The former Sharks and Saracens front ranker unpacks the Springboks’ style of play and reveals a conversation he had with Schalk Brits in terms of the Boks playing boring rugby.
  • He also shares his fondest memories of the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour and how four Irishmen ended up in his house wearing Springbok jerseys during the series 12 years ago.

Sport24 asked: Your opinion on the Springbok starting front row?

Deon Carstens: I was quite surprised to see that Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe won’t be starting this Saturday but it makes sense to go with the formula that is working with such strong front row depth. I understand why Jacques Nienaber has selected Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane as a trio. The three of them are short, strong and very mobile. What the starting front row may lack at scrum-time they will make up for in their loose play. And when the Springboks revert to Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Malherbe it will afford them a whole new dynamic especially when players are a bit more tired in the second half. The men occupying the two front rows have different strengths. We know that the British & Irish Lions always boast a strong scrum so hopefully Ox and Trevor can do the same as Beast Mtawarira and John Smit did to them in the first Test 12 years ago. No one saw it coming when we annihilated the British & Irish Lions on the loosehead side and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of the series. I was sitting on the bench and knew that with every scrum Beast dominated my chances of getting on at loosehead were getting less and less.

Sport24 asked: Are you surprised by Mako Vunipola’s exclusion?

Deon Carstens: I think Vunipola is one of the best loosehead props we have seen in a very long time so it’s quite surprising he hasn’t even made the match day 23. However, according to my English rugby sources they say the Lions possess a very strong pack of forwards. They have gone for as big and strong personnel as they can in order to match the Springbok forward pack. It will be interesting to see how the Lions’ front row of Wyn Jones, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tadhg Furlong fare. But the way the Boks have always looked at it; it’s better to worry about yourself a bit more than what the opposition are doing. If you make too many plans it may backfire. It will be interesting to see if our starting front row holds up and if they can lay a platform. If they can you then get that monster pack coming on who can really kill it. Over and above the scrums, I think the lineouts are going to be even more of a role-playing factor over the series. If I was the Springboks, I would definitely try to disrupt the Lions’ lineouts as much as possible. It’s a much better platform from which to attack these days. After the SA ‘A’ match, I am pretty sure the Boks will have a good plan around lineout contestation.

Sport24 asked: Do you share the view that the Boks are boring?

Deon Carstens: I coached at my old school Boland Landbou and the kids always think you just run it and something will happen. That may be the case when it comes to schoolboy rugby but when you are playing professionally; it’s all about building pressure and creating opportunities. Simply passing the ball to Cheslin Kolbe and thinking that he will score a try is ludicrous. His job is finishing off opportunities so the rest of the team has to create those chances for him. The Boks aren’t playing barefoot under-7 rugby where they just pass the ball to the biggest or quickest guy. But after the 2019 World Cup I had the same discussion with Schalk Brits. I said, “Geez, I think you guys are playing boring rugby.” They scored tries which looked awesome but it was all off turnovers and mistakes. Schalk explained to me that from studying the stats, if you don’t break the advantage line within the first two or three phases then the chances of you conceding penalties increase. You go for line breaks but if they don’t come off, you aim for territory. If you attack and it isn’t on because the defence line is so good, you kick. And then maybe three phases later there’s a lazy prop running back and an opportunity arises. The Springbok game plan is all about not making a mistake in vulnerable areas and putting pressure on opponents. With pressure come mistakes and opportunities to strike. 

Sport24 asked: Any regrets of not playing more Tests for the Boks?

Deon Carstens: Regret is not something I hold onto and especially when it comes to rugby. I played nine times for the Springboks and proudly represented my country in international rugby during an era of tremendous front row talent. I felt lucky to have played when the competition was strong and every Test that I played meant something. I didn’t get any freebies. I started off being coached by Rudolf Straeuli and then had Jake White and Peter de Villiers as Bok bosses. When I started with Rudolf and ended off with Peter, rugby was a lot different. At Springbok level, I most enjoyed Jake, Allister Coetzee and Gert Smal not just as coaches but in terms of the way they treated people. It was a pretty special coaching team. In terms of Peter, I only had a brief relationship with him. He is definitely a very interesting character and some people like him and others don’t. The criticism he copped from the local and foreign media, in particular, was negated by good leadership within our team. I only had three Test matches under Peter so I didn’t have that much to do with him. His time as Springbok coach made for interesting reading but it was handled brilliantly by the senior Bok players so it didn’t really affect the players on the inside as much as it did the people on the outside.

Sport24 asked: Your take on the Du Preez twins being sent packing?

Deon Carstens: I hate it when people speculate and say maybe they were cut from the Springbok squad because they weren’t fitting into the team culture. You’ll never get the truth at this time so it’s all just speculation. Which is a worse way to go: To say you don’t fit in and I don’t like you as a person or you’re not good enough as player? Both are bad ways to get cut. I think Dan and Jean-Luc are very good players. I don’t know them personally but have met their father Robert Sr and know him as a tough but good guy. Sometimes you need individuals who have stronger and more difficult personalities because rugby brings many different personalities together. It’s always tough luck to be cut so to connect a negative connotation as to why they got left out isn’t a good response. The Du Preez brothers are still very young and they have a chance to represent the Springboks in the future.

Sport24 asked: What are your recollections of the 2009 Test series?

Deon Carstens: I was on the bench for all three Tests but came on during the first Test in Durban which was amazing for me. It was the only time I experienced Test rugby at my beloved Kings Park. I replaced John Smit and then injured my shoulder after 10 minutes. Our captain came back on to steer the ship home. The 2009 Springbok squad was a special group of players and they always will be. Off-field, the tour was also memorable. At one stage, 17 mates of mine were staying at my house in Durban. When I went to my house one morning to pick something up there were four Irish lads sitting there. They were clearly enjoying South Africa a bit too much because they were drinking beer on the stoep and wearing Springbok jerseys! Back then the country was in a good space and the atmosphere was electric. It’s such a pity we can’t host our British and Irish visitors this time but that’s life at the moment. Being part of the 2009 series was special... Either the British & Irish Lions didn’t like us or they were too sour because they didn’t enjoy post-match beers with us. We had a few beers after the second Test, which was a good day, and I don’t think we needed anybody else. 

Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the first Test on Saturday?

Deon Carstens: The opening Test is so important and both sides are going to be playing the territory game. If you win the first Test then the second is massive for the losing side. I foresee the Springboks and Lions following the template of England and Germany in the Euro 2020 semi-final. The first Test is going to see very cautious tactics and both sides are conservative to be honest anyway. I can’t see the Springboks running everything and playing mad rugby. They will wait for the pressure to build on the opposition and then they can set their attack alight. The Boks sit with game changers in the form of Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Willie le Roux and Makazole Mapimpi in their backline so the Lions know just one mistake and they are in deep trouble. Never mind the Boks’ conservative style of play, they have still got guys who can break the line and finish their chances. I see Kolbe has been labelled as the ‘Lionel Messi of rugby’ and it’s not far off. They are the same size and equally as skilful. Off the field, Cheslin is so humble. I have never heard him say anything about how good he is. It’s always about his teammates who create chances for him to look like a champion. In this game it doesn’t matter how great you are individually, nobody gains anything. The Boks’ best attribute at the moment is that you hardly see anybody that thinks it’s about them. That is how you create a legacy... I see the Boks winning the first Test, the Lions the second and the hosts clinching a thriller of a third.

Previous chats:

Paul Wallace

BJ Botha

Bruce Fordyce

Eddie Andrews

Raymond Rhule

Robert Hunt

Dean Hall

Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg

Jasper Wiese

William Small-Smith

Matthew Booth

Boebie Solomons

Chris van Zyl

Wim Visser

Morgan Newman

Dewald Potgieter

Daniel Leo

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