Saturday 23 September 2017

Loyal Stringer cherishing return to Munster's heart

Hugh Farrelly

WHEN Munster began to motor in the second half of last weekend's Heineken Cup clash in Reading, working their way back from a 20-6 deficit to a losing bonus point, there was a familiar feel to it all.

The forwards started to grind out yards through pick-and-goes and close-in drives and, when the ball was fired back, out-half Ronan O'Gara called the shots, directing operations with hand and boot.

And, in the middle, was O'Gara's long-time partner Peter Stringer, the conduit between grunt and guile, completing a half-back double act that dominated Munster and Irish rugby for much of the last decade.

Yet, for all the familiarity, the facts state that Stringer was starting his first Heineken Cup game for Munster since the semi-final defeat to Leinster two seasons ago.

After breaking onto the Munster side in the late 1990s, Stringer was immovable at scrum-half for the bones of 10 years. His position was so secure that a string of scrum-halves -- Brian O'Meara, Tom Tierney, Eoin Reddan and Frank Murphy -- were forced to go elsewhere in search of game time.

The turning point was Munster's Heineken Cup quarter-final trip to Gloucester in 2008, when Tomas O'Leary was handed the No 9 jersey and, since that day, Stringer has been designated understudy.

At international level also, the 91-times capped Stringer has moved from first choice to third behind O'Leary and Reddan. His last full cap was against the USA in 2009 and on last summer's tour, Stringer travelled to the far side of the world for 19 minutes off the bench against the Maori.

Frustrating? Just a little bit, particularly as Stringer turns 33 in December. However, O'Leary's thumb injury has presented the veteran gunslinger with an opportunity to prove his continued worth for Munster and Ireland -- starting in Thomond Park tomorrow against Toulon.

"Last weekend was fantastic," said Stringer. "It's been a while since I started a Heineken Cup game and it was a great feeling and very emotional -- you cherish every minute you get on the pitch.

"It's been difficult, not having started a lot of games in the last couple of years. When you come from playing quite regularly in your career and you have a match to focus on at the weekend, not being selected early in the week becomes frustrating.

"I found myself initially being frustrated but I learned to cope and refocus and be ready at any opportunity. The main challenge is mentally to stay on top of it and remain focused. You could be called in the first five minutes of a game and that's an important thing to be ready for.

"Mentally it's quite tough, but things happen like this. Injuries happen to people, you get opportunities and you have to be able to take them. Every player needs a few games to get into a rhythm, so (last weekend) I felt quite fit and had a few games under my belt this season."

Respected

Being such a well-known, widely respected and decorated player, it was inevitable other clubs would come sniffing when Stringer's contract was up for renewal last season and there was speculation of a move to Ulster, while Leicester were also said to be very keen. Stringer opted to stay put.

"I looked at a few different options, certainly whether to go away or whether to stay. At the end of some long discussions with family and coaches, I came to the decision that to stay here was the best option at the time," he said.

Now Stringer wants to play his part in getting Munster's European campaign back on track by beating Toulon. He anticipates a typically monumental Thomond Park occasion.

"It's huge. It's what this province is built on, Heineken Cups. Our experience of playing in Thomond Park over the years has been magical, and we have a great record here and the support has been incredible.

"We never do things the easy way -- we've lost the first game in an extremely tough group. It's a matter of refocusing and expecting a very difficult challenge against a really good French side. We'll be ready to meet the challenge. We know we need to give the crowd something to cheer about."

Irish Independent

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