Strauss a smart choice

Adriaan Strauss is the right man to lead the Springboks into a new era, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Adriaan Strauss battles to keep a straight face.

‘Sorry,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine’s photographer. ‘I’m not sure if I can manage an aggressive pose today. I’m in a really good mood.’

Three days have passed since Strauss was awarded the Springbok captaincy by Allister Coetzee. The new Bok coach broke the news to him over a quiet breakfast at the team’s training base in Stellenbosch.

At the time, Strauss wasn’t quite sure how to react.

‘I went through a range of emotions,’ he says with a laugh. ‘This is going to sound like a cliche, but I always consider it a massive honour to be selected for any Springbok squad. I never take it for granted. Maybe that’s because I’ve been left out of a squad or two in the past, and it didn’t feel great.

‘When the coach asked to meet me for breakfast, I didn’t know what to expect. Then he said he wanted me to lead the Boks. I was a bit shocked. I didn’t know what to say. When I managed to find my voice, I told the coach I was so thankful for the opportunity. It was a special moment for me.’

Coetzee chuckles when he’s asked to retell the story from his point of view.

‘It was an easy decision to make,’ the Bok coach says. ‘Since I was appointed, I made it clear the Bok captain must be based in South Africa. Adriaan has come through the ranks [having led the Cheetahs and Bulls at Super Rugby level, and been a Bok vice-captain in 2013 and 2014] and I felt he deserved this chance.

‘When I told him about my decision, he asked me if I was 100% sure I was making the right choice. It wasn’t because he didn’t have faith in his own ability. It was because he wanted to know how the senior players would feel about it.

‘That meant a lot to him. I told Adriaan it was ultimately my decision. That said, I then called the senior players together. They all agreed it was the right call and duly pledged their support to Adriaan.’

Strauss grew up in Philippolis, a small town in the Free State with a population of around 3 700 people. Back then, the workers on the Strauss farm took a liking to the cherub-faced youngster with the blond hair, though they found it difficult to pronounce his first name.

‘They couldn’t say Adriaan, so they just called me Atter-jan,’ Strauss says. ‘Everybody else started picking up on it. Some of my friends shortened it to Atter. The nickname stuck with me as I grew up and many people still call me Atter today. To be honest, every time somebody addresses me by that name, it makes me remember where I come from. It makes me proud of my roots.’

Strauss made his Test debut in 2008, but only became a regular in the Boks’ match-day squad in the 2012 season. Over the next four years, he established himself as one of the best hookers in the world. It was no mean feat, as he was part of a Bok squad that included Bismarck du Plessis, one of the great hookers of the modern era. Going into the 2016 season, Strauss had played 54 times for the Boks, and had started on 23 occasions.

Throughout the interview with SA Rugby magazine, Strauss attempts to steer the conversation back to the team and the leadership collective. While he concedes that he has a crucial role to play as Bok captain, the performance of the team in the coming months will be influenced by the synergy of all its senior players.

‘If I think back to the senior players who were at the 2015 World Cup – Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger – they were all exceptional leaders. Everybody in the squad benefited from playing alongside leaders of that calibre.

‘Those players are no longer available and it’s time for a new group to step up. It’s an exciting time. We have several franchise captains in the senior group [Pat Lambie from the Sharks, Frans Malherbe from the Stormers and Warren Whiteley from the Lions]. Then we have the experienced overseas-based Duane Vermeulen [Toulon] and Francois Louw [Bath], who will both play a key role. As a captain, it helps to know you have players like that around you. I will definitely lean on them in the future.’

There is a strong chance one of those senior players will deputise for Strauss on a regular basis. The demands of modern rugby are such that front rankers cannot play 80 minutes of rugby week after week. The trend sees props and hookers, even those with the captain’s armband, leaving the field 50 or 60 minutes into a contest.

‘Every game is different,’ says Strauss. ‘On the day, it’s up to the coach to decide whether you stay on the field or not. That’s why it’s so important to have a strong core of leaders. You need several players in your squad with the necessary leadership skills and experience to close out a game.

‘Those players will help implement the game plan and will help to drive the team culture off it,’ Strauss says, before expanding on the latter. ‘It’s important to stay true to Springbok rugby. There are a lot of traditions that form part of the culture, traditions we inherited by those who came before us. We will look to build on them. That said, we have a number of exciting and energetic guys in the squad. There’s a different dynamic and we will forge our own path.’

As for his philosophy, Strauss feels that he needs to lead by example. He’s not about to relax now that he’s been handed the captaincy. On the contrary, he believes he needs to earn the right to start every Test. 

‘You have to maintain a high standard and prove you are worth your position,’ he says. ‘I’ve always been honest with myself and I’ve always been my own harshest critic. I feel I’m playing better rugby this season than I was in 2015. I pride myself on my scrummaging and lineout play. I’ve been working hard at the breakdown, and have made quite a few turnovers for the Bulls [11 after 12 matches]. Am I satisfied with that? Of course not. You can always improve in all aspects of your game.’

Strauss was appointed captain for the duration of the three-Test series against Ireland in June. Coetzee, however, has intimated that he may retain him in the Rugby Championship and beyond.

‘That’s not something I can actively pursue,’ Strauss says. ‘I’ll take things day by day. I can’t worry about nailing down the appointment, I have to focus on what’s in front of me.

‘Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about getting the long-term job. It’s just that it’s not my decision to make and I don’t want that to be my focus. My focus is on the present and what’s best for the team.’

– This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli