Deon Carstens’s versatility saw him win the position of back-up tighthead in the Springbok squad, according to Peter de Villiers.
Many experts view the first-choice tighthead as the most important player in the team with the reserve No 3 the second most crucial individual. Against the British & Irish Lions, who rate their scrummaging looseheads in Andrew Sheridan and Gethin Jenkins, the tighthead position couldn’t be more important for the Boks.
Carstens made his international debut in 2002 at No 3 on that fateful day when the visitors lost to Scotland at Murrayfield. More importantly, Carstens struggled at the set-piece.
Seven years on and he has been primarily used as a loosehead in the Sharks’ Super 14 campaign, where he has produced the goods to deservedly earn a Bok recall.
But at tighthead? His form in the No 1 jersey may warrant a call-up, but not in the unfamiliar position as anchor to the scrum.
De Villiers, never the fan of the specialist, said Carstens’s versatility value earned him a spot in the squad. When asked if this was the reason, De Villiers replied: ‘You’ve just answered your own question for yourself,’ unwilling to elaborate on the matter.
Smit is also relatively untried at tighthead on the international stage, having played just over 80 minutes in Tests against Wales and Scotland last year. The Bok captain had more experience in the Super 14, where he dominated the likes of Jamie Mackintosh but Australian Benn Robinson handed him a scrummaging lesson.
De Villiers has proposed his vision of playing ‘total rugby’, but that will be more difficult with a struggling tighthead and scrum. When the scrum goes backward it psychologically affects the rest of the players and is also physically draining.
If the scrum struggles, the hooker Bismarck du Plessis will take strain, hampering his lineout throwing, which is a Bok strength. The locks will be fatigued when it comes to jumping, while it isn’t ideal for the loose forwards, who need to win the battle of the collisions.
Without front-foot ball for the backs, De Villiers’s vision of ‘total rugby’ could be a pipe dream.
The omission of a specialist tighthead in the squad is another risk that was unnecessarily taken. Why it was done, only De Villiers will know.
By Grant Ball, in Johannesburg