EXCLUSIVE: Former Scotland flanker David Denton chats to Sport24

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David Denton (Getty Images)
David Denton (Getty Images)
  • Ex-Scottish international David Denton, who played 42 Test matches from 2011 to 2018, talks about having to end his career owing to concussion and player welfare in the game.
  • The former loose forward, who last turned out for Leicester Tigers at club level, assesses the Boks’ back-row balance and in what ways Kwagga Smith offers a point of difference.
  • He also reveals if he grew up dreaming of playing for the Springboks, having been schooled in South Africa and why a Scotland win could mean an immediate addition to his family.

Sport24 asked: How difficult was it not calling time on your own terms?

David Denton: At the end of the day, there was nothing I could do about the way my career had to conclude. However, the one frustration I have is that I potentially had my best rugby ahead of me. I had matured as both a player and person and, after a couple of tough years where I wasn’t performing well, I came back and was playing good rugby. I really found some momentum and had a better understanding of what it took to be consistent at the top level. Then my injury happened and I never got to play again. My health is good today and that’s the main thing. However, I experienced symptoms from concussion for about a year-and-a-half. I had headaches, was really struggling with my vision and wasn’t able to read for a long time because of it. I was in the process of doing an MBA and unfortunately I had to stop due to the symptoms I experienced. When I was out of the game for 18 months, I tried everything under the sun to ensure that there wasn’t something else that was going on other than concussion. I went on a pretty mental diet where I didn’t drink any alcohol for a year-and-a-half and for six months I cut out sugar and white carbs. I saw various doctors about other potential issues that it could have been, but nothing came up. All the doctors always told me, which was frustrating to hear back then, that time was the best healer in my respect and it has rung true.

Sport24 asked: Your thoughts on early-onset dementia in rugby players?

David Denton: It’s quite scary to hear and, as a former player, it’s hard to know if you’ve got something ticking away at the back of your head that is going to go off in 10 years’ time. I don’t want to stick my head in the sand and not think about it, but I try to push it to the back of my mind as there is nothing I can do to change what’s going on. From my personal perspective, I think I was always responsible with head injuries. I did everything I could with the information I had in order to stay safe and I hope that will be enough. Hopefully there are not that many more rugby players who go through what the likes of Carl Hayman is experiencing because you wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I think the whole issue behind the group of ex-players launching legal action against World Rugby is that there was stuff that the players weren’t aware of. As long as players have all the information and everything is done within its limitations to mitigate the long-term issues, then fair enough. There is risk in everything we do, but the important thing is awareness in terms of education. Rugby players need to know from a really young age what the risks are and what they need to do in order to try and avoid them.  Fundamentally, I don’t think we will be able to change rugby because it’s a collision sport, but there are things to do to mitigate the risk of long-term illnesses. Looking forward, it seems like some positive steps are being made. For argument’s sake, the new rule implemented in terms of the number of contact sessions teams can do in a week is a good step in the right direction.

Sport24 asked: Schooled in South Africa, did you dream of playing for the Boks?

David Denton: I grew up in Southern Africa and was schooled in South Africa, so the guys I used to watch playing were the Springbok stars from those days. Schalk Burger was my rugby hero, but my ambition was always to come over and play for Scotland because that’s where my heritage was. As soon as I finished school, I moved over and started giving it a go. I was always half-Zimbabwean and half-Scottish and that was how I was brought up. Scotland is a small rugby-playing nation and it’s great for us when players from others countries come across. In terms of the three South African-born players in Scotland’s match day 23, the sporting landscape has changed. For a lot of those guys they probably did grow up dreaming of being a Springbok and that never happened for whatever reason. I don’t know the trio well on a personal front, but they seem like incredibly passionate men and are proud to represent Scotland. They are living out their dreams of playing international rugby.

Sport24 asked: What is your assessment of the back-row battle on Saturday?

David Denton: Kwagga Smith is a dynamic plyer and very different to a traditional Springbok back-rower. However, in the injury-enforced absence of Pieter-Steph du Toit, I don’t think it has to be a like-for-like replacement. Smith is smaller in terms of stature but is very skilful. Both offer different strengths and I don’t think Kwagga has to worry about how Pieter-Steph would have done it differently and, in turn, I don’t think the Springbok coaches would be concerned about that either. In terms of Duane Vermeulen, he is a formidable player, an amazing ball-carrier and someone I really enjoyed playing against. I played against Siya Kolisi when we were both at school in Port Elizabeth. He was already a fantastic player back then and has gone on to become an even better player and a bit of a legend. Being voted Player of the Year would be a fair accolade for Kolisi. He is performing really well in a team that is winning and obviously his name should be in the hat for the top award. On a Scottish front, the backrow of Nick Haining, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson is a well-rounded loose trio. Ritchie is a great player and is a really hard worker. He gets through the dirty work, while Australian-born Haining and Fagerson will be vying to get their hands on the ball. Putting Hamish Watson on the bench is an interesting call by the selectors and I imagine it’s tactical for whatever reason. He’s in unbelievable form and will add significant value when he manages to get on the field.

Sport24 asked: What do you make of the critique of the Boks’ game plan?

David Denton: I’m a rugby fan now and want to watch attacking, dynamic and fast play, but in terms of criticism of their playing style I don’t think the Springboks give a damn what the press and public are saying about them. As long as they’re winning, they don’t care. I don’t think many South Africans supporters will care very much either. The Springboks are playing rugby in a way they think is most conducive to winning, so I don’t feel there is much more that needs to be said about it. On the flipside, I imagine that Scotland are really going to try throw the ball about. There were a number of Scottish personnel within the the British & Irish Lions squad and I think they will be looking to make a statement about the style of rugby we needed to play and how effective that can be against South Africa. I absolutely expect Scotland to ask more questions of South Africa’s defence. Apart from a short cameo in the third Test, I was pretty disappointed that Finn Russell didn’t get more of a run during the Lions series. It will be great to see the 9-10 axis of Ali Price and Russell really testing the Springboks and putting them on the back foot. This is a very strong Scottish side that is in good form.

Sport24 asked: How do you see the 28th Test between the sides shaping up?

David Denton: I think it’s two-fold and starts and ends with Russell. He is so key to how Scotland perform. On top of that, as with any team you play, if Scotland are on the front foot with Russell at 10, they are going to be very difficult to beat. However, South Africa pride themselves on not letting teams get on the front foot. Moreover, 22 losses in 27 Tests against South Africa isn’t something you want to remind yourself of as a Scotland player. South Africa is a really big, proud rugby nation and Scotland are coming in as underdogs. However, this team in particular is definitely capable of getting a win. In the past, we have been beaten by the better team, but this Saturday I think we’ve got a good chance. The Murrayfield crowd could be the 16th man for Scotland. My brother went with his missus to the Scotland-Australia game last weekend and they couldn’t believe what the atmosphere was like. As a player, when you’re in it you start taking it for granted. But, as I grew older, I really appreciated how awesome it was to run out in front of 70 000 people. The Flower of Scotland is a great anthem and when you play at Murrayfield they turn off all the music for the second verse and all you can hear is the crowd. It’s enough to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. My missus is nine months pregnant, so if there is a Scottish upset on Saturday she might go into labour!

Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests, who gets invitations and why?

David Denton: I would go for Muhammad Ali, Bill Gates and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. What inspires me about those three individuals is that they got to the top in terms of what they do. They are and were very achieving people and diverse as well. Gates is such an intelligent person with strong opinions about all issues we have around the world. He has also pledged to give away the majority of his wealth before he dies. The trend for all three of them is that they are or were good people and despite the personal success achieved, they still wanted the best for others. The aim is to inspire others to be the best version of themselves. From a sporting front, there was no doubting that Ali was the hardest worker out there and that’s why he is potentially the best there has ever been. But he was so much more than a boxer and he impacted so many lives outside of the ring. I never wanted to put myself in a box as only a rugby player and always desired to be more than that.

Previous interviews:

Warren Brosnihan

Dale Benkenstein

Stephen Mokoka

Nolan Hoffman

Eugene Eloff

Mark Robinson

Stefan Terblanche

Neil de Kock

Stefan Terblanche

Marcelo Bosch

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