Wednesday 24 May 2017

Back in harness and cast in role of senior citizen

South African happy to mentor emerging stars against Zebre as he looks to make up for lost time after knee surgery

Richardt Strauss still has plenty to offer for Leinster
Richardt Strauss still has plenty to offer for Leinster

Marcus Ó Buachalla

As the first block of games in the club season comes to an end, for some it is just the beginning. Tomorrow in the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi Leinster will take on Zebre in Round 8 of the Guinness Pro12 in the knowledge that a win should keep them top of the table, or near enough at the very least.

And then they can relax for a week or two before the next batch of games is upon them. Trouble is some will be just getting going when they are told to down tools. Take Richardt Strauss as exhibit A.

Garry Ringrose: Amazing progress. SPORTSFILE
Garry Ringrose: Amazing progress. SPORTSFILE

"Yup, it's annoying alright! When we sat down during the summer and discussed options for my knee we were looking at maybe eight weeks out maximum but instead that has turned into 12 and there is a big difference there," laments the hooker.

BREAK

"So instead of coming into this break off the back of maybe four or five games, I'll have played just the one and suddenly we're on a break. But what can you do?"

What he could do is play some more All-Ireland League games with Old Wesley, which he did to good effect last weekend in a 35-25 win against Glaswegians.

"It was great! Great fun actually. I was nervous going into it. It wasn't my first game back as I had played with the Leinster 'A' team the weekend before that but it was just an unusual situation," he says.

"I popped down during the week for a session, got to grips with a few things, and next thing you know you are there on the Saturday togging out with your club. It was a hugely positive experience and makes you realise just why you fell in love with the game in first place.

"Grass-roots rugby and a good crowd cheering you on. . . . "

A 35-25 win and a good 50 minutes under the belt was just what the doctor and Strauss himself ordered.

"I've been building gradually," he says. "There was Leinster 'A' last week and that was a good 40 minutes, then the game with Old Wesley and now this weekend against Zebre so it's good to be building every week, and I'm just looking forward to my first senior game of the season."

That first senior game takes place at a venue he is familiar with, and he knows all too well the pitfalls if you don't come ready to fight.

"Zebre get very close to teams very often and that is why you can't look at their league position," he warns.

"Instead you have to look at the evidence of what they produce on the pitch and that is, especially at home, some really good performances.

"Two excellent examples this year, where they have picked up losing bonus points against Cardiff and Glasgow at home - scored three tries against both, and will feel that they could have taken more.

"They were 22-10 up against Connacht until that game was abandoned with the weather.

"We can only go on what we see in those games, and you see a good set-piece, accurate when in your 22 but maybe they just lapse a little at times and that's what lets teams in.

"We have to earn the right to play against them. We have to get our basics right. If you don't you'll find yourself very quickly in a fight and that lifts them, lifts the crowd and suddenly it's a very different game."

Take Edinburgh last weekend, where Zebre recorded a first win on Scottish soil. Or just look at two seasons ago when Leinster visited.

"That first half was as tough a 40minutes as I've played," recalls Strauss of the 3-3 arm-wrestle of a first half.

"But we stuck to the plan and you have to do that over there, and you need players really buying in and really applying themselves over the full 80.

"If we can do that on Saturday we won't be far away."

Strauss (30) is Exhibit A this weekend - experienced campaigner, up and running with his first game of the season.

Exhibit B is a different animal - young lads getting a very first taste of Leinster Rugby action. Strauss, capped 17 times by Ireland, believes in them, and feels that the time is right to give them an opportunity,

"Absolutely it is. The lads have been very patient and have been applying themselves very well. Be that with their clubs in the AIL, or with Leinster 'A' and then they train really hard pushing us more senior lads," he says.

"So I'm delighted for them and I think it's a huge endorsement of the Leinster Academy system.

"I think 12 of the 23 last weekend came through that system. Then you have others like Garry Ringrose who wasn't involved but will be with Ireland this weekend. That system that we have in place is crucial and is important because those lads are the future of this club.

"They can't do it themselves though and that's when you need the experience especially on weekends like this but what I like about this lot is that they are open to conversations, they are open to feedback.

"I'm not one to preach but if somebody wants to have a chat I will do that and they are all very open to that and I think that's a huge positive."

Usually Strauss wouldn't be involved against Zebre and wouldn't be having those chats this weekend.

An international window has heretofore seen him scrap it out with Rory Best and Sean Cronin for the Ireland No 2 jersey but his knee injury put paid to those international plans for now.

So that puts him in the unusual position of being one of the most senior players this weekend.

Words of wisdom?

MADNESS

"I don't know about wisdom! But I just think that the boys should enjoy the game," he says. "That is easily forgotten in the madness of match week and all the pressures that they will be feeling ahead of a first start or first involvement or whatever.

"The game is faster, yes, it's more physical, yes, but it's also a brilliant experience and those 'firsts' don't come around too often so you have to relax as best you can, think about it as another game but ultimately enjoy it.

"Saturday afternoon against Zebre with 22 other players, with 22 mates, where else would you rather be?"

Come tomorrow evening, they could be top of the Pro12. Whether Exhibit A or Exhibit B, they'll take that.

Irish Independent

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