Rugby Union: Stransky: How England can win

Andrew Longmore talks to a Rainbow man still dreaming of glory
Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOEL STRANSKY does not dwell on the past. At least, that is what he says. But the South African would scarcely be human if the events of the next few weeks did not prompt a flick through the scrapbook. Four years ago, Stransky's drop goal brought the Rainbow Nation a brief and precious glimpse of a brighter future.

But it is not the moment of ultimate victory that Stransky remembers. Dropping goals to win World Cups was office-work. Nelson Mandela arriving by helicopter on the training ground to wish the team good luck before their first game, hugging an old friend from Durban during the victory lap at Ellis Park, the fish which mysteriously found its way into the bed of his room-mate after the defeat of Australia in that first game. A strange ragbag of thoughts unwittingly logged and unexpectedly retrieved.

Stransky would like to be there again, conducting the green and gold in defence of their title, but a collision with the Fiji pack has hastened his retirement to the safer side of the microphone. Through the window of the Leicester Tigers' clubhouse, he points to the exact spot on which his knee, already softened by years of pounding on the hard pitches of the veld, collapsed for good. He tried to play again, pretended that he would while knowing deep down that one phase of his life was over.

Instead, his forthright opinions, the same instinct for honesty which brought him headlong into conflict with the controversial Andre Markgraaff, the post-World Cup South African coach, will be available to viewers of Eurosport and they will be worth a listen, not least because he is a strong advocate of England's cause. England, he believes, could generate exactly the same momentum as South Africa did last time.

"We sat down and said that to win the World Cup we had to win our first game against Australia. If we didn't we would have had to face England, Australia and New Zealand in consecutive matches to win it, which was asking too much," he says. "Our sole focus from the moment we got together as a squad of 60 or whatever was to beat Australia. Once we'd done that, everything fell into place.

"England have the same scenario. Beat New Zealand and I have absolutely no doubt that they can go on to win the World Cup. They will then go through the easier half, only playing European teams until the final. If they lose, in all probability they will have to beat South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In three weekends, that's tough."

Time at Leicester has given Stransky a particularly acute understanding of England's strengths and weaknesses. He isolates three decisive factors for a team to win the World Cup in a northern hemisphere autumn: a substantial pack, strong defence and good goalkickers, all of them strong suits for England.

"England have a very strong pack, they've got two good goalkickers and I know Phil Larder, because he's worked with us here at Leicester, and he's a great defensive coach. Plus, it's a massive advantage playing at home, having 60,000 people shouting and screaming for you in the stadium and another 45 million behind you, that gives you a heck of a good feeling.

"Kicking goals is not just a matter of accumulating points, it's telling the opposition: 'If you kill the ball, you're going to be punished.' Then the scoring opportunities will come. Clive Woodward has only got himself to blame for England not killing off sides in the Five Nations. He didn't kick his goals in the early games and teams continually killed the ball.

"But now you've got [Will] Greenwood back as a playmaker. If I was playing opposite him, I'd be thinking he's a guy I've got to worry about and if I have to do that, it might leave a little bit of space out wide for [Jerry] Guscott, who's still got the pace and the skill. The only problem, in my opinion, is if England go out and try to play really exciting, expansive, almost cutesy rugby from the first minute. They won't win anything, if they do that. But if they go out and build a tight foundation, use their pack and then slowly expand as they dominate the game, they have a great chance of winning the World Cup."

The only drawback to this glowing tribute is that, pushed to pick the champions, Stransky still nominates New Zealand. "I picked them when they'd lost four in a row and I'm sticking with them now. I mean, they lost the whole backbone of their team, all in one go. Fitzpatrick, the decision maker and captain, Zinzan Brooke, Bunce and Marshall. The whole front row was getting on and Ian Jones was starting to age a bit. It just took them a little time to find the right combinations."

The tournament, he feels, will come a fraction too soon for his own South Africans, though the return to form of Joost Van der Westhuizen and Henry Honiball makes them dangerous company. Wales could beat anyone and lose to anyone else. Scotland's pack lacks a bit of power.

Ireland could be anything, but have enjoyed the luck of the draw with a potential quarter-final against France in Dublin as good as they could get.

Stransky believes the old debate about southern and northern hemisphere rugby will be proved largely irrelevant. Ultimate victory will come down to little bits of luck here and there and the run of the referee's whistle.

In a different way, this World Cup is critical to Stransky. He is still in denial about his own career, the words which pronounce that he has to move not yet uttered with conviction, his coaching role at Leicester not yet an adequate replacement for playing. "My heart is still between those four white lines. But I know I can't get there, I know I'll never be able to do it ever again and I'm hating it," he says. He pauses. No, not hate, he adds, frustration.

He would like to stay with his family in England, but his future is uncertain. His work with Eurosport and South African television will absorb his restlessness for the next few weeks, give him a bridge between past and future, a chance to forget as well as remember.