Strauss on last leg of journey
AT Grey College in Bloemfontein, they nail the names of their former students who go on to be Springboks above the numbered seats in the locker room.
When Richardt Strauss was head boy at the famed rugby academy in 2004, he took his seat under the names of Herman van Broekhuizen, Theuns Stofberg, Ruben Kruger, Gerrie Britz and Naka Drotske -- all former flankers who left the school and went on to represent South Africa.
As a Junior Springbok himself, he fully expected to emulate them. But tomorrow, when he becomes a senior international rugby player at the age of 26, he won't sing 'Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika' and, when the whistle goes, he will throw himself at everything moving in dark green.
Before he joined the academy at local Super Rugby franchise Cheetahs and became a hooker, Strauss formed part of a formidable back-row with fetcher Heinrich Brussow and No 8 Deon Stegmann -- both of whom went on to play for South Africa.
Strauss will finally join the Test ranks at the Aviva, but until he left for Leinster in 2009, he couldn't have imagined his international debut would come against the land of his birth.
"All three of those loose forwards in our senior team became senior internationals, it is something special," head of rugby at Grey, Dries van der Wal, told the Irish Independent.
"From the start Richardt was an excellent rugby player. At that stage, when he played for our first team he played with the two other guys, Heinrich and Deon, and he was always a very positive guy and a hard-working player."
Like RBAI in Belfast and Blackrock College in Dublin, Grey has a proud record of producing top-level rugby players.
Ruan Pienaar is one of those and, along with Jannie du Plessis and Strauss' cousin Adriaan, he will take to the field opposite his alma mater team-mates tomorrow.
"It was not an easy decision for him to come here and leave everything behind," the Ulster scrum-half admitted.
"South Africa is a rugby nation and it is every young boy's dream to play for the Boks, but young players see that opportunity that he has taken with both hands and I'm sure he can't wait to make his Ireland debut.
"I played with his brother Andries, who is the same age as me. I know Richardt since he was in primary school. I always knew he was a special player."
The hooker himself stressed yesterday that he has no mixed feelings about the anthems or facing the team he grew up dreaming of playing for, and said he will be focused on the task at hand.
But Drotske, who coached Strauss at the Cheetahs, believes he will have to deal with the inevitable emotions that will come during the formalities.
"That must be tough," the former Springbok said. "The better thing for him to do is get the emotions out of the way.
"There is no doubt that, as a young boy, his ambition was to play for the Springboks. But I think that he is mentally strong enough to put that to one side and to play well for Ireland."
Having moved from the back-row to hooker in the formative years of his own career, Drotske oversaw Strauss' development at the Cheetahs. The man who was part of the 1995 World Cup-winning squad played a big part in helping the youngster grow into his new position.
"I always knew it was a good move for him, being in the same position myself. I moved when I was an U-21 player from flank to hooker," he said.
"I thought it was a very good idea, he worked hard and made it and I am very glad for him.
"At the beginning he was a little bit small. We all said to him that he must put on some weight and he really responded well and worked hard in the gym to put on seven or eight kilos.
"He worked hard at his basics, his scrummaging and his line-out throwing, and it is quite nice to see that he has made it in Ireland. He is a quality player, a very good ball-stealer with a very high work rate."
Then, in 2009, the protege came to his coach and sought advice about a move he was thinking of making.
"At that stage he came to talk to me and explained there were quite a lot of young, quality hookers playing for South Africa," Drotske recalled.
"John Smit was still captain, Bismarck du Plessis came through, Adriaan Strauss and Chiliboy Ralepelle and he just felt that, at that stage, it would have taken him a long time to play international rugby and that is what he wanted to do.
"He thought that he could make it quicker in Ireland and he did. I'm very proud of him."
That move, Van der Wal said, took "a lot of courage," and having never looked back with success after success with Leinster, he becomes an Irishman this week.
Still, nobody else wearing black tomorrow will understand what it means to wear that dark green.
"When you go into our training room, where the boys sit, we have the names of all the Springboks who have played in that position. It is an unbelievable experience and inspiration for the boys to sit in a place where other Springboks have sat, knowing that so many others in their position have gone on to play international rugby," Van der Wal explained.
Whether they add the school's first Ireland international to their wall of fame remains to be seen, but Strauss, himself, appears to be happy to leave the past behind.
"I see myself as an Irish player and one day I'll be lucky enough to be a citizen. So, bar my family and a couple of my friends, I'm an Irishman," he said, confirming that his parents Andries and Colleen will be at Landsdowne for his big day.
"I made my commitment to Ireland three years ago and I'm just very happy to get this opportunity. For me, it's probably more special just to run out for Ireland than anything else."