Rugby Union: A Tiger adding finesse to fire

Leicester lean on Joel Stransky for a balance of power.
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The Independent Online
OH TO be in Oadby now that winter's there. Beneath a depressingly grey sky, Joel Stransky supervises the backs at the Leicester training ground at the aforementioned village on the outskirts of the city. How are things going Joel? "It's bloody cold I tell you." It's comparatively mild but everything's relative. No wonder he keeps a house in Cape Town.

Leicester have made some strange decisions, notably the sacking in mid- term last season of Australia's former World Cup coach Bob Dwyer, but the signing of Stransky has been one of the club's better moves. Since joining in January 1997, he has scored 731 points in 55 games (an average of more than 13), 418 of them in 34 league matches. This season he has scored 77 in five appearances. Much more of this and he'll be challenging the record of the legendary Tiger Dusty Hare and at such a rate as to make the former England full-back look like a tortoise. Whereas Dusty was not renowned for his pace, Stransky has a lot more to offer than the ability to kick goals, as his 17 tries testify.

The funny thing is he probably wouldn't be at Leicester but for Dwyer. "When I left South Africa Leicester had several attractions. It was a successful club with huge support and I thought that working with Bob Dwyer would be fantastic. He was one of the reasons I came here and his sacking upset me. When it happened we had a cup of coffee and we both just sat there shaking our heads. What's done is done. I'm sure the club had their reasons."

Stransky benefited from Dwyer's sudden departure. Although Dean Richards, the Welford Road Mammoth and one-time leader of the pack, ostensibly filled Dwyer's boots, Stransky was given the role of coaching the backs. "Bob established a great foundation to build on," Stransky said. "We've kept some of his ideas and introduced some of our own."

On the surface they seem unlikely bedfellows; Richards liked nothing better than scoring tries through the immense strength of the pack, preferably in a series of rolling mauls; Stransky prefers Dwyer's wider vision."We have a more balanced approach this season," Richards said. "But we don't just parade ourselves for other people. Our supporters weren't brought up on open play and they are not that bothered with the style provided we win."

Indeed, a 3-0 victory over Saracens at Vicarage Road this afternoon would be Richards's idea of heaven. It is the first heavyweight collision of the season and the first time Stransky has played against Alain Penaud. "Saracens won the cup in great style and should have won the championship," Stransky said. "They have a new decision maker, we have a new centre and full-back. There may be subtle changes but the style will be pretty similar."

Last season a single point separated the clubs in two league matches and a cup-tie. Stransky dropped a goal in the last minute for a Premiership win at Vicarage Road and in a cup match at the same venue, Michael Lynagh kicked the winning penalty at the death.

The introduction of Pat Howard at centre and Tim Stimpson at full-back has given Leicester more attacking options and they have already shown touches of Les Cusworth- like cleverness in midfield. Stransky has also profited from a new model Austin Healey, restored at scrum-half. Exit Dwyer, exit Dwyer's mercurial Fijian Waisale Serevi.

"Last year Austin's attitude was horrible," Stransky said. "Scrum-half is very much the job of a communicator and decision maker and when you have a bad attitude it's not going to work. There's no respect. There was nothing much to chat about. This year he's made a huge effort and his attitude is excellent. He's obviously a great ball player and he takes a lot of pressure off me. Serevi was one of the most sensational ball players I have ever seen but he was more a sevens man."

Stransky was a Springbok hero when South Africa won the World Cup in 1995, scoring all his side's points in a 15-12 victory over New Zealand in the final. He won the last of his 23 caps in the defeat to the All Blacks in Pretoria the following year, falling out with the new coach, Andre Markgraaff. "Politics plays a huge role in South African rugby and I didn't get on with the coach," Stransky said. "It was pointless hanging around for nothing. I'd like to have won 123 caps. Maybe if I'd stayed..."

A few months after Stransky left Western Province, Markgraaff was dismissed for making racist remarks. When South Africa entertained the Lions last year, they shot themselves in the foot by not selecting the Springbok who had become a Tiger. With no recognised goal kicker, South Africa lost the first two Tests and the series. In Cape Town and Durban, Stransky was a spectator. "It was so stupid. We should have walked it. We lost that series because we didn't have a kicker. It was incredibly frustrating. I didn't bother going to the third Test."

There will be a South African reunion in Watford today when Stransky will have a few beers with his World Cup captain, Francois Pienaar, and his former Maritzburg College contemporary Jeremy Thomson, now a Saracens centre. "He is a very ambitious man who is driven to succeed," Stransky said of Pienaar. "He has ensured the success of Saracens. The mentality of the game has changed and the coaches are trying to speed it up. It's getting faster and more skilful although when the weather turns miserable it's going to be hard to play entertaining rugby. To make it a level playing field with the Southern Hemisphere we should play in the summer. I miss the South African weather, but I don't miss the rugby or the environment."

Stransky has settled in Leicester with his wife Karen and two-year-old daughter Sabrina and will play another season before concentrating on coaching. Although he has a house in Cape Town he has sold his pub, the Green Man. "It was very successful but cash went missing. A key factor is that over here we can bring up our daughter in a peaceful environment. There's crime everywhere but not the violent crime that South Africa has."

When the Springboks arrive in Britain this month, Stransky will have another reunion with a school pal, the South African captain Gary Teichmann. At 31, Stransky's chances of playing in next year's World Cup are slim to invisible. "You never give up hope. I get a thrill when the South African press phones because it shows I'm on some people's minds. Maybe if I'm playing well they might still use me but probably not. Their policy is not to pick from outside South Africa."

From Ellis Park, Johannesburg, to the Oval Park, Oadby, it has been an interesting safari for Stransky. "We've got roots here now. I wouldn't want to move anywhere else."