Still pulling the strings
Age no barrier for scrum-half as he prepares for Amlin final
AGE is such an indelible fact of Peter Stringer's life that people can't help reminding him of it.
"What age are you now?" they ask. "Thirty-six," he sighs wanly. "Really?" they gasp.
For many, Stringer's professional career ended when Ireland and Munster decided that, after 14 years, he had no future at the highest level of the sport.
The trouble was Stringer clearly disagreed. Where others perceived only his dwindling youth, Stringer was blind to his age and still wedded to a deep-seated belief in his own ability. All he wanted was a stage. From Newcastle to Saracens, he bounced around the Premiership until, last season, he found a new home in Bath.
Like Stringer, they are former European champions hungry to re-establish former pre-eminence. The perfect marriage. "First and foremost, I still love the game, I still love playing it," says Stringer, the infectious enthusiasm still dripping from his diminutive, power-packed frame.
"I've always said that once the mind and body are in sync with each other and both are able to continue, then I don't see a reason to stop. I still look after myself when I'm away from the game, whether in terms of training or nutrition. But it's the love of the game, analysing defences, analysing games. It's a different game for me, I'm not carrying and making hits all the time like a centre.
"It's distributing ball quickly, getting around the pitch to follow the ball, analysing the space. As long as the body feels good, and the mind is willing, I'll keep on going."
His status next season as the second oldest player in the Aviva Premiership behind the redoubtable Nathan Hines, the former Leinster man who will pitch up at Sale as he elongates his Indian summer, reflects his determination to keep playing at the highest level.
He has already penned an extension to his deal – indeed, he still harbours an unlikely hope that he could add to his 98 Ireland caps. So, how long can he continue in the game?
"Who knows?" he muses. "You speak to guys who have finished and they know when it's their last season. I'm not there yet, so it's really difficult to put a number on it.
"I'm still motivated to win things and when you play with a young squad who have that burning ambition like these guys, that spurs you on. It makes training upbeat, you want to perform and continuously play well. Isn't that why you play the game?
"There's no reason why I couldn't play until I'm 40 or whatever, but I don't like putting a time limit on it. I still feel the same as I did 10 years ago.
"Externally you hear people going, 'ah is there another year left in you?' You get drawn into that a little, but then you remember it's your body. It's your mind. And you'll decide."
Mike Ford, the Bath coach who has husbanded a mostly fresh-faced team to the brink of the top four and tonight's Amlin Cup final against Northampton, for which Stringer is slated for a late cameo from the bench, enthuses about his former Ireland charge.
"There's no way we have to look after him because of his age. Quite the opposite," says the erstwhile Ireland defence coach. "Peter is like a spring chicken. His enthusiasm is unbelievable and his perfectionism sets him apart. He is such a good bloke for us to have around."
The feeling is mutual. Stringer offers guidance and a cool head while the whippersnappers bring the enthusiasm – sometimes too much.
Against Harlequins, in their final regulation league game, his side had the chance to claim a top four play-off having occupied third for much of the year; Stringer's belated arrival from the bench came too late to dampen his side's excessive ardour.
"It's just about managing the game and trying to treat it as any other game. That's always the challenge when you come to these games. You try to not let it consume you.
"Of course, there's emotion, but you need to manage it. We struggled with that against Harlequins. We tried to play a different game to that which we're used to.
"We need to realise that we've trained all year and how we've played all year is what we should stick to. We need to stick to the familiar and that will stand us in good stead.
"I remember when I started, playing with young fellahs out of school. You're playing a quick game, trying to tap and go everything.
"It's just about managing things on the pitch. With guys that have the talent that we have, you never want to hold them back. But I'm loving that mixture of experience and youth."
Of course, Stringer is not averse to the odd tap-and-go himself. Remember Biarritz in 2006? Eight years on, he will return to the scene of that seminal Munster breakthrough, sparked by his epochal try.
"It's going to bring back good memories. Cardiff is a great city, a great rugby city. The whole build-up, arriving on the bus and driving through the city where you can almost touch the supporters. It has a magic buzz.
"It would be a nice to add another one. That try is in the muscle memory. It's something you look back when you're finished, it doesn't really have any relevance to what you're doing now.
"But I haven't forgotten about it. Don't worry."
Thankfully, the sport hasn't forgotten him either.