Soul destroyer

Italy tighthead Martin Castrogiovanni will give the Springbok scrum a stern examination.

Castrogiovanni is constantly providing a challenge for the opposition and referees. Gurthrö Steenkamp has had to re-think his game after undergoing the Castrogiovanni test and although Steenkamp’s reluctant to admit it, the Italian tighthead may have done the South African loosehead a massive favour.

Castro, as he’s simply known, plays for the Leicester Tigers. They gave the South African pack such a working over in the Tigers’ 22-17 win over the Bok dirt-trackers in November last year, that the strength and reputation of South African scrummaging has been questioned ever since up north.

Steenkamp was man-handled for the opening 43 minutes at Welford Road, and has since overhauled his technique. He flew home straight after that game with a knee injury, and did a lot of thinking over his extended off-season.

‘That wasn’t the greatest day for the Boks,’ Steenkamp says euphemistically. ‘We didn’t scrum together in training and we came up against a strong pack. But after scrumming against Castro I realised I needed a change in technique because the scrum has evolved over the past year. Teams use it to milk penalties, like Leicester did, or as a great attacking platform.

‘I knew I had to adapt my game and I placed a strong emphasis on scrumming during the off-season.’

Steenkamp’s adaptation has meant he’s enjoyed an improved Super 14 in the loose and more importantly, at scrum time. It may have been an embarrassing lesson to take, but being schooled by Castrogiovanni has improved Steenkamp’s rugby.

The Bulls prop rates Argentina-born Castrogiovanni as one of the top three tightheads in the world, and Italy coach Nick Mallett agrees.

‘At 28, he’s only maturing in terms of prop play. In the next four years we’ll see the best of him,’ predicts Mallett. ‘He’s had another great international season and has also done well for Leicester. Dan Cole [who was England’s first-choice tighthead by the end of the Six Nations] is also in that squad, but Castro is Leicester’s first-choice. He’s the rock of their team.

‘He keeps defences busy with his pace and ability with ball in hand, while he contests on the ground, and makes a number of tackles per game.’

The Italian backs may be slow and unable to capitalise on the quality of possession they receive, but Mallett doesn’t try to hide the fact that the Italian scrum – with Castrogiovanni the spearhead – will provide the Springboks with a difficult challenge in a two-Test series in June.

‘The scrum is the one area of our game where we feel we’re competitive, if not better, than any international side we face. Castro is vital to that. Like most Argentineans, he’s a strong scrummager and is good in the tight exchanges, but what’s a bit unusual is how good a player he is all around the park.

‘He’s undoubtedly one of the best tightheads in the world at the moment, not only in terms of his scrummaging, but also his general play. Against Scotland this year, his statistics were phenomenal. He made 10 tackles, enforced four turnovers on the deck, and made six ball carries, while also completing his other duties at the set pieces. Those stats would be good for a loose forward.’

Castro may not be an official leader in the Italian side, but Mallett stresses that doesn’t take away how much he influences their fortunes.

‘He may not be captaincy or vice-captaincy material, but he still shows great leadership in how he applies himself. He’s a guy who can weigh 130-135kg [in his best shape he weighs 119kg], but he’s on a good conditioning programme at Leicester. We monitor him closely, and he sticks to it religiously to stay fit.’

Castro hasn’t only dented the reputations of many international props, but some officials too. In Italy’s Test against the All Blacks at the San Siro last year, Castrogiovanni and the rest of the Italian pack’s destruction of the Kiwis grabbed most of the headlines.

Trailing 20-6 with eight minutes remaining, the Italians camped on the All Blacks’ line, opting for scrum after scrum. New Zealand tighthead Neemia Tialata was eventually sin-binned, but despite awarding numerous penalties against the Kiwis for collapsing the scrum, referee Stuart Dickinson didn’t award a penalty try.

Afterwards, Dickinson said he couldn’t give the try as Italy weren’t going forward, but Mallett reasoned that they couldn’t do that as the All Blacks dropped the scrum. IRB referees chief Paddy O’Brien, a New Zealander himself, said that Dickinson had got it wrong and had O’Brien been reffing, he would have awarded three penalties to New Zealand.

The drama continued as officials from the Australian Rugby Union complained to the International Rugby Board regarding O’Brien’s verdict of Dickinson’s performance, and O’Brien in turn apologised. Mallett was not content with this and demanded an apology to his player and team. O’Brien later said he was misquoted by a journalist and that he wouldn’t have awarded the penalties to New Zealand.

Eventually all parties were apparently happy, but the player in the middle, Castrogiovanni, took the most strain. Steenkamp said he didn’t pick up anything illegal in Castrogiovanni’s technique, but Castro remained a target for refs, similarly to what BJ Botha went through in 2007.

‘Castro had a helluva tough time after that,’ says Mallett. ‘Refs started looking at us unfairly, and we’d get penalised at scrum time for doing nothing wrong. Against Ireland we were penalised repeatedly, even though we dominated again. After that, Paddy came over to me and said he’s sorry and acknowledged that the refs weren’t being fair. He realised they were looking solely at Castro, and not the other team’s faults.

‘Castro’s a guy who gets a decent shoulder on his ball, but on the opposition feed, he has a real go. I had to tell him that until the problems with the refs had been sorted, don’t go hard. Scrumming defensively was unnatural for him.

‘Even then, he still got penalised, and French ref Romain Poite came up to me after one Test and said after watching it on TV, he realised he’d got it wrong. That was frustrating for Castro and for us.’

That’s when a meeting was organised between Castrogiovanni and O’Brien. The Italian was getting penalised for releasing the bind, but he explained it was impossible not to once he was going forward.

‘If the opposition loosehead’s going backwards and pulls his arse out to the side, and Castro keeps his bind, he’ll dislocate his shoulder,’ says Mallett, relating what Castrogiovanni told O’Brien. ‘If Castro keeps his bind as the loosehead pulls out to his left, Castro’s shoulder will pull to his right to such an extent it will rip out the socket. Castro maintained that once he’s won the battle and is going forward, he should get the rewards.

‘Paddy told us he’s told refs that both props must scrum straight. If the loosehead pulls out at an angle, he should get penalised before Castro gets penalised for releasing the bind. That put an end to me telling Castro to scrum defensively.’

The Azzurri play the Springboks in Witbank and East London, and the hosts can expect their scrum to be given the Castrogiovanni test for a full 160 minutes. Whoever starts in the Bok No 1 jersey, whether it’s Steenkamp, John Smit or Beast Mtawarira, they should know they’ll be targeted.

‘If we’re facing the Boks with Pierre Spies playing No 8 and we give them a right shoulder, we’re f**ked,’ says Mallett. ‘Spies will run 40m off the back every time. It’s no secret, we have to attack their scrum. All we want is the officials to ref it objectively.

‘I’ve told Paddy to imagine it was Italy and not New Zealand who were defending scrums on their own line for eight minutes. Would they have given New Zealand a penalty try? The answer is yes, and that’s what we see when someone is reffing subjectively. All we want is for the scrum to be reffed fairly.’

By Grant Ball

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine