'When you just get the news you go, I don't care if I don't play again'
Richardt Strauss talks candidly about the heart scare, hostility for singing 'Amhran na bhFiann' and getting his career back on track
FOR the last few weeks, Richardt Strauss has been coming to terms with the bang on the head that quite possibly saved his life. Routine concussion tests revealed not only a hole in his heart, but that he had, at some stage in his life, suffered a mini-stroke.
The following week, Leinster and the IRFU put him through a series of tests. A complete overhaul was required and on a Tuesday afternoon in an office in the Mater Private, the hammer blow came. For someone who had avoided significant injury throughout his career, a serious health scare was a lot to digest.
Strauss can now talk about a whirlwind 12 months that saw him realise a lifelong dream of Test rugby before being plunged into the darkest depths, powerless to pull himself out.
"I have a bit of history with knocks to the head and our medical team got a bit concerned about the whole thing," Strauss explains.
"They sent me for an MRI just to see if everything was fine and that's where Professor Tim Lynch and the radiographer picked up something in the back of the brain.
"There was a bit of old bruising and blood and stuff and that got them into doing more tests. It's going to sound worse than it really is, but they did loads of tests and that's when they found that little hole in my heart.
"The stuff they found on the brain was not as a result of trauma, but was actually a little stroke I had at some stage in my life and I didn't even realise it."
The 'hole in the heart' condition is not uncommon and a sufferer can live their whole life without ever knowing. However, in Strauss' line of work, it was career threatening – and had it gone undetected – possibly life threatening.
His world was turned upside down. It's only last September since he was bundling over for a try against the Ospreys, with one eye on winning more Ireland caps. Within weeks, the career he had uprooted his family to the other side of the world for, was slipping through his fingers.
"When you just get the news, you go 'I don't care if I don't play again. I just don't want to be afraid of dying when I'm 35 or 30 or whatever'. You go 'let's get healthy first, then I'll worry about the rest.' "
He's better now, but for the moment, rugby is out of the question. His head now swirls with thoughts of anti-clotting medication and Tedy Bruschi, the NFL player who had similar ailment to Strauss.
The three-time Superbowl winner's condition wasn't detected in time and he suffered a full-blown stroke before recovering to play another three seasons.
Perhaps it's his Afrikaners upbringing, but he speaks of the whole episode with a remarkable detachment. With a shrug of his hulking shoulders, he explains in a matter of fact way the procedure that saw a device placed in his heart to help regulate the problem. The following day, he was at home cutting grass.
The long road back has started now.
The official target date in mid-April, but already he's working at something sooner than that. In the meantime, he plans to work on his throwing, tackling and scrummaging.
"Once I realised okay, you're going to be alright, you're going to think okay, six months, that's a bit long. Can't we get them down to five months? That whole battle is going to start now. I'm seeing the cardiologist and I'm going to ask him for a time to see if I can get back a bit sooner."
In the meantime, he'll spend Christmas at home in South Africa where his ambition to play international rugby means he's become unpopular with some.
Even though the Springboks were top heavy with hookers when he left for Ireland with the likes of John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Chiliboy Ralepelle, and Schalk Brits all ahead of Strauss at the time, they saw his decision to head north as some form of treason.
That was compounded when he mouthed the words of 'Amhrán na bhFiann' before his debut against the Springboks, after learning them phonetically.
And ahead of his trip home to a country mourning the death of Nelson Mandela for a friend's wedding later this month, he expects some "hostility."
"From the public there certainly is a bit of hostility, but the players do understand it. They understand that if a guy goes somewhere else to further his career then fair enough. I think the players have always been supportive of it. The guys from South Africa were really positive with me and supportive of me when I saw them after the game, but some of the public don't really appreciate it that much.
"You get both sides. Some people give you the cold shoulder and don't really want to talk and some people have been really supportive. But, to be honest, I don't really care.
"I don't need to win the respect or anything of the South African public. I need to earn the respect of the Irish people and that's what I have been trying to do. People in South Africa can say what they want really, how is that going to affect me?"
It's just one in a host of challenges he has overcome in his career.
A back-row through his formative years, he only converted to hooker after he realised that standing at 5' 9", it was his best chance of staying in the game at the highest level.
In fact, such was his ambition, he refused to sign a contract with the Cheetahs until they agreed to help him convert to the front-row.
After that, he moved lock and stock north to Ireland where he stuck out a dismal first year that saw him demoted to AIL duty with Blackrock, before establishing himself as an international class hooker.
With his only focus on getting back in the paddock before the end of the season, a few stray barbs on the streets in South Africa won't knock him back either.
For now, all eyes are on April and perhaps a run-out in the latter rounds of the Pro12.
"I'm not a real emotional guy, but I think it's just going to be more relief than anything just to get back.
"It's quite frustrating to sit here and see the boys play and then just come in and go out. It's not what I want to do.
"I'll be excited and happy just to be back on the pitch.
"Even if I get involved and the coach decides it's a difficult time of the season to play me, if they don't feel I'm ready to be out on the pitch playing a match, then even training with the lads will be good enough for me at that stage."