Kirsten relishing start of new campaign
By Neale Harvey
Jannes Kirsten insists denuded Exeter will not allow Test call-ups, retirements or injuries to stand in the way of their quest for a repeat Premiership and European ‘double’.
Chiefs will be missing up to 14 stars for Friday’s Premiership opener at Harlequins – a game that takes place less than four weeks after their title-clinching win over Wasps.
However, versatile enforcer Kirsten told The Rugby Paper: “During the past season we also had periods when there were a lot of internationals away and people injured, but that’s when younger guys or guys who don’t play so often come in and prove themselves.
“It’s great to see people come through and develop and that’s when people grab their chances, so there’s an element of excitement as well. There are some holes to fill but it’s a good chance for the whole group now to step up and lay the foundation for more success.”
Kirsten says motivation remains massive, adding: “I reckon the lockdown put a little bit of a dampener on the high we all felt, so we didn’t have too much time off and we want to do the double again whilst looking forward to full crowds and getting the full experience this time.
“The supporters deserve to be there and while winning the Heineken Cup and Premiership was brilliant, it would have been lovely to see the stadiums fully packed. There’s a lot of motivation and the young guys will bring new energy, so we’re looking forward to that.”
Although the disappointment of being unable to parade two major trophies through the streets of Exeter is palpable, Kirsten takes huge pride from being able to follow in the footsteps of one of his boyhood heroes after hoisting European rugby’s biggest prize.
He explained: “When we arrived at the stadium in Bristol, they had photos of previous winners on our way into the changing rooms and I actually took a little moment when I saw Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana and Jonny Wilkinson lifting the Heineken Cup with Toulon.
“Bakkies was my childhood role model and he inspired me quite a lot, so to get the chance to hold that trophy in my hands as well was pretty unbelievable. I liked the way Bakkies played and I’d love to get the chance to represent South Africa as well one day.”
With lock trio Jonny Hill, Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner away on international duty and Dave Dennis having left the club, Kirsten is likely to be stoking Exeter’s boiler at Quins.
He added: “I think my versatility helps because I can play at lock or in the back row and Don Armand gives us the same option as well. But Chiefs are not too worried about the number on your back anyway because we all know our roles and can carry them out.
“Rob Hunter, our forwards coach, doesn’t get the credit he deserves there and I don’t know if we’d have done what we did without him being part of the set-up. He’s got a big brain – very clever, very analytical – and having him involved stands us in good stead.”