Strauss’s smart move

Adriaan Strauss will be a central part of the Bulls’ and Springboks’ campaigns in 2015, writes RYAN VREDE.

Adriaan Strauss loves going forward, and 2014 was the year of forward for him. Most significantly, he moved forward in the Springbok pecking order, unseating the previously undroppable Bismarck du Plessis, and maximising his opportunity, one he’d been waiting for for some time.

A lesser player would have grown stale in Du Plessis’ shadow and perhaps sought the comfort of a lucrative contract abroad. Not so Strauss, who rarely failed to impress when deployed off the bench and who was often the catalyst for a final-quarter surge from the Springboks. Instead, he bided his time, ensuring he excelled in the role he was assigned and showed himself to be an excellent steward of the Bok No 2 shirt when Du Plessis’ form waned.

Strauss also moved forward in terms of his earnings and potential for franchise success by switching to the Bulls, who he’d represented in the infancy of his professional career. Citing a failure to agree terms with the Cheetahs (he’d asked for an independent investigation into Cheetahs rugby), Strauss reportedly doubled his salary through a two-year deal with the Pretoria union and is assured of being their premier hooker for the 2015 Super Rugby campaign.

The decision was a good one. The Cheetahs have lost a string of talented players in the past two years. The calibre of individuals who remain won’t make them competitive enough to challenge for a play-off place, whereas the Bulls, with a number of gifted men returning from injury and a troop of talented young turks emerging, have the potential to, at worst, be kingmakers, and, at best, challenge for a top-six finish.

So Strauss’s year is set up to be a good one. A consistently high level of performance will advance his cause to remain the Springboks’ starting hooker ahead of Du Plessis, although the Sharks man has gone on record declaring his intention to up the ante in a bid to wrest back the jersey. The gauntlet has been laid down for Strauss – an intimidating one at that – and his response will make a statement about his mettle.

Either way, barring injury, Strauss is certain to go to the World Cup and his value in the context of a match 23 cannot be overstated.

He is highly competent in all the key performance areas for a Test hooker – scrummaging, lineout feeding, ball carrying and strike running, and defending. He also offers the Springboks a game-breaking option when the contest opens up, and is adept at effecting turnovers or slowing the ruck recycle. Add to that his experience, leadership ability and big-match temperament and you have a formidable player. 

‘I worked with Adriaan at the Bulls after watching him for a long time as a schoolboy,’ Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer begins. ‘In those early days he was raw and needed a lot of coaching but the investment was worth it because he always had the potential to become the player we see today. I was disappointed when he left the Bulls for the Cheetahs because I felt he was at the point where he was ready to play a key role at the union.

‘But he developed just fine at the Cheetahs and forced his way into Springbok squads through the quality of his performances. Last year he got a chance to start after a long time playing off the bench and we didn’t lose any quality. He did very well.

‘We have two world-class hookers in Adriaan and Bismarck, perhaps two of the best in the game. Any coach would want to be in my position. How we use them depends on a number of factors, but both are strong starters and can make a big impact off the bench. It’s a healthy situation.’

The Springboks’ hooker stocks have never been this strong and it will be one position Meyer will have no worries about come September, assuming of course both men stay injury-free. For now, though, Strauss will set his focus solely on the Bulls’ Super Rugby challenge.

An experienced, well-rounded hooker was a feature of all three of the Bulls’ Super Rugby title campaigns. Gary Botha, a player of technical similarity to Strauss, started two of those finals (2007 and 2009), which will encourage coach Frans Ludeke, who has struggled to plug the hole left by Botha’s departure.

Chiliboy Ralepelle was seen as the heir to that throne but struggled to assert himself when fit. He was released to French giants Toulouse, leaving the Bulls to mount their challenge with young, inexperienced hookers.

With Strauss’s arrival, and an injection of potency from returning stars and emerging young talent, the Bulls’ transition phase could be at an end.

Strauss will be central to that transition, as he will to any chance the Boks have in England. He has once more moved forward and his two teams will be hoping to benefit massively from his momentum-giving presence.

– This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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