Monday 18 November 2019

'It was a shock to the system'

Richardt Strauss revels in unique ferocity of Leinster-Munster rivalry, writes Marie Crowe

Leinster's Richardt Strauss
Leinster's Richardt Strauss

Marie Crowe

When Ireland won the Six Nations Championship in Paris last weekend, Richardt Strauss proudly looked on. He had been called into the Ireland camp two weeks previously to provide cover and was in the stadium with the squad for the decider against France.

For game day, Joe Schmidt had given him the job of filming the scrums and after he did the warm-up he got on with his assignment. Strauss, by his own admission, had minimal involvement in the tournament and that was reflected in the way he celebrated.

Rather than rush onto the pitch when the final whistle blew, he reservedly walked down the steps in the Stade de France, congratulated his team-mates and then scarpered.

"I just wanted to stay out of the way," explains Strauss. "I didn't want to jump in front of everything – that's pretty hard to do sometimes, to control your emotions. You weren't involved so you have to take a step back and let the lads enjoy it."

After the game he went to the celebration banquet and the following night, when the squad returned to Dublin, he showed his face briefly at the after party in the Four Seasons. Leinster training was scheduled for Monday, so focus switched to his team's upcoming games.

Along with the looming Heineken Cup knock-out game against Toulon, they have next Saturday's Rabo Direct Pro12 game against Munster at the Aviva Stadium to prepare for.

A clash with their rivals is always a big game, regardless of the competition and that isn't lost on Strauss. "When I came over, I wasn't really involved the first season I was at Leinster. I stayed with CJ van der Linde, and he'd tell me about it, but you'd take it with a pinch of salt. Then the first time I was involved with it, it was a shock to the system, like 'jeez, this is really happening'.

"And it is what they say it is. It's pretty exciting; we all enjoy it pretty much. He (Van der Linde) spoke about the lads, the whole town getting up for it, all the fans seem to be twice as big a fan as they are, and everyone really wants to win that game more than anything else. It's just the hype around it is something different."

Strauss noted the intensity. Every breakdown and every scrum was contested with such ferocity that it was a rare experience for him. Even though the Bulls and the Cheetahs have a similar rivalry in his native South Africa, it doesn't compare to the one he is part of now.

There's some added fizz – as if it's needed – after recent comments about the high number of Leinster players on the Irish team compared to Munster. Last week Rob Penney said the upcoming encounter will be Munster versus the Six Nations champions.

"That's the first I've heard of it," says Strauss. "But if they want to get up for it in that manner – which I doubt, knowing the lads – they're all very proud Munster lads, and they're going to want to come here and do a job on us. So we've got to be ready for that. We also want to put in a good performance and come away with a good result."

These days it's not hard to notice there is a calmness about Strauss. This is hardly surprising given what he has been through. Back in October he was diagnosed with a hole in his heart and yet by January, having undergone surgery, he was back playing against the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup.

"I talked to the doctor and he said the dosage of aspirin I was on was low enough to start playing after I had gone off the plavix (heart medication). I went to see the cardiologist and he agreed and took me off the medication altogether. That's the only thing that kept me from playing, the fact that I was on a blood-thinning medication."

His return was met with a standing ovation from Leinster fans in the RDS. It was an emotional experience for the hooker.

"What happened when I went on caught me by surprise and got me real emotional. It just made you appreciate all the support there with Leinster and all the fans we have from the beginning. Our support in South Africa is, if you won a game then they are the world's best supporters, but if you lost a game then there is no one there the next week. Here, we get a good crowd every week it doesn't matter what happens, and that makes it so much easier to play for Leinster."

Having worked so closely with Joe Schmidt, he knows what the New Zealander expects and demands from players. In camp, for the two weeks running up to the French game, he got to see Schmidt operating in his new role as Ireland head coach.

"I still think he's got the same philosophies, but it's been a bit more intense. Joe is a bit of a rugby addict and I think the fact that he has to stay away from a game as long as he has, just makes him so more intense when he gets into camp. Everybody's benefited from it, so it's been a good thing.

"Joe comes in pretty prepared. Like I said, he's an addict. And when he comes into a meeting on Monday morning, it's like he's played the game already. Everything is sorted out, planned and mapped out and by the end of the meeting, you know exactly where you're going and what you have to do. I haven't seen him doubt himself. He's been hiding it pretty well."

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