Western Province flank Nizaam Carr is starting to realise his true potential, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
The path from prodigal talent to full international is scattered with the remnants of rugby careers gone awry. For every Handré Pollard, there’s a Nick Koster. Both players were schoolboy prodigies. Only one looks likely to fully fulfil his promise.
Nizaam Carr, like Koster, was a highly-rated loose forward who was drafted into the Western Province Rugby Institute after his school days at Bishops. ‘Nemo’ was a natural – an instinctual player who had a feel for the game.
Such players are rare in today’s heavily-coached climate, where structure trumps individuality. After a promising start to his provincial career, Carr’s progress was halted by an ACL injury he suffered against the Cheetahs at the tail-end of the 2012 Super Rugby season. It would keep him out of action for nine months.
‘That setback changed me,’ says Carr. ‘When I got to the seniors I was young and perhaps a bit reckless. But while I was out with the injury I had time to reflect. It put everything into perspective; I learned to appreciate the game and I realised that rugby won’t always be there for me. I didn’t want to take the opportunity for granted.’
For a player who approached the game in such a carefree, confident manner, the injury was a massive blow. Serious injuries are a poison to professional athletes. Long after the physical damage is done, the psychological effect remains. Carr began to question whether he would be able to step off the weakened leg, whether he still possessed the same explosiveness, whether he would be the same player again. As a young man still finding his way at senior level, his confidence took a knock. He had to rebuild.
‘There was a big change in him when he went to the institute after his injury. He came back a man,’ says WP forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot. ‘You could see he had made decisions about his life. He realised he was different and that he had the ability to go all the way.
‘When Siya [Kolisi] made it so quickly, it showed Nemo he could do it. It changed the way he looked at things. He accepted his responsibility in the equation and took it upon himself to drive himself forward. He started taking the time to learn the details, be it at lineouts or on defence. And that has won him the respect of the senior pros around him.’
‘When Siya [Kolisi] made it so quickly, it showed Nemo he could do it. It changed the way he looked at things' – Matthew Proudfoot
Carr had mixed success in 2013. Working his way back to form and fitness, he showed glimpses of the confident young man who had strolled through the doors at the institute a couple of years earlier. He helped Province to the Currie Cup final, but suffered the disappointment of missing out on selection for the match, where the returning Duane Vermeulen took his place.
However, with a full pre-season under his belt before the 2014 Super Rugby campaign, Carr was finally given the consistent game time he’d been seeking, albeit in the No 6 jersey.
‘I couldn’t be more grateful for getting the opportunity to play Super Rugby,’ says Carr. ‘Playing flank was different for me. You play more towards the ball, and you have to make more tackles and hit more rucks. That helped me develop my physicality and I carried it through to the Currie Cup, but it was nice to be able to bring more of my linking ability back into my game.’
The confidence began to course through his veins once more, the instinct returned and with it his form. Assured of the No 8 role, he turned in match-winning performances each week. In a WP squad shorn of its Springboks, Carr’s coaches asked him to fulfil a more senior role, and he seemed to revel in the added responsibility.
He became an integral player in the WP team, so much so that the buildup to the Currie Cup final was dominated by his fitness issues after he suffered a hip injury in the semi-final win over the Blue Bulls. He would recover to play a starring role in Province’s dramatic 19-16 victory. In the midst of the hysteria at Newlands after the final whistle, Allister Coetzee found an emotional Carr and they shared a few words.
‘I didn’t know then that he would make the Bok squad, but I told him it was a special performance from him – that’s how a Springbok should play,’ says Coetzee.
Forty-eight hours later Carr would receive news of his Springbok selection in the most humbling circumstances.
‘I went to drop my sister at school because she’s writing her final matric exams, and I rushed back to watch the announcement on SuperSport Blitz. I saw my name and thought, “Hey, but that’s me.” I called my mom into the room – she was the
only other person at home – and we celebrated together. It really was an unbelievable feeling. It’s indescribable.’
At 23, Carr still has his best playing years ahead of him. He’ll face tougher challenges next season as his star continues to rise, but Proudfoot believes that if Carr stays injury-free, there will be more to come from him.
‘He’s got incredible potential, not only as a player, but as a leader. He has the propensity to go to the top, to not have a second-year syndrome. I think we haven’t seen the best of him yet. He has another gear to go to.’
CARR ON …
BEING NAMED WESTERN PROVINCE MVP AND PLAYERS’ PLAYER OF THE YEAR
‘I usually don’t pride myself on individual awards, but I must be doing something right. Rugby is a team sport, though, and I’m very grateful to my teammates and coaches for helping make me the player I am today.’
WP’S CURRIE CUP VICTORY PARADE
‘I had to stand in for Juan de Jongh [who was away with the Barbarians]. It was great to take the cup to the people, especially where I grew up in Mitchell’s Plain. I’ve got so many friends and family there supporting me, so that was special for me.’
BEING SELECTED FOR THE SPRINGBOKS
‘It’s a great honour and privilege to be a part of something so big. Even if I’m asked to carry tackle bags or water, I’ll give 120% for the team. I’m just going to make sure I soak in as much as I can from this tour and if I get the chance to even be on the bench, it will be a bonus.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine