Rugby Union: The Bok may stop here

Bedford may be battling for their lives but Rudi Straeuli is determined to lift the Blues. By Tim Glover
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The Independent Online
RUDI STRAEULI is the only man in the world to think so, but he can see similarities between South Africa's World Cup winning side of 1995 and Bedford. That's right, the great Springboks that found the Webb Ellis Trophy at the end of the rainbow nation and little, impoverished Bedford who are up to their scrawny necks in a relegation battle.

Four years ago, Straeuli, a tower block of a man, helped South Africa to their ultimate goal and it requires some trip of the imagination to link Ellis Park, Johannesburg, with Goldington Road, Bedford. "The Springboks were not a great side on paper but there was a special bond between the players and a great mix between the young and the not so young," Straeuli said. "We have a similar thing at Bedford."

But for Straeuli, Bedford might now be history. When Frank Warren and Sports Network invested in the club three years ago, it was transformed, with Geoff Cooke as director of rugby, Paul Turner player-coach and Straeuli as leader of the pack. Nobody could touch them in the second division and promotion to the Premiership became a formality. And that's when the trouble started.

They were promised a bonus for going up but it was not paid. Subsequently, the club saw more bouncing cheques than the Prague Trampoline Federation. Martin Offiah and Jeff Probyn had already gone and Cooke and Turner were also obliged to seek employment elsewhere when Warren's legal bout with the American boxing promoter Don King this year exacerbated Bedford's cash-flow problems. The Blues were singing for their supper.

Then there was one. Had Straeuli left, Bedford, founded in 1886, would have disbanded. As it was the players came very close to walking out. "Warren wasn't very good at explaining his financial problems," Straeuli said. "As director of rugby I was the one to give the bad news and it was a bit like shooting the messenger. It became a question of trust. Whenever the players weren't paid they would issue letters claiming breach of contract. We have a file this thick [indicating about two feet of paperwork] and I told them that adding to it was pointless." Instead the players held a vote and it was 14-11 to carry on. "We would go through the season come what may," Straeuli said. With three games left, only West Hartlepool (whom they play today) are beneath them in the Premiership and it looks as if Bedford's best chance of survival is in the play-offs.

Last week, Warren cut his losses and a new party moved in - Jefferson, Lloyd International. "The new owners have balls," Straeuli said. "To come in at this stage with the side needing to win every game... would you buy Bedford? I don't blame Warren. He's taken a lot of criticism but he could have ducked out earlier. He's a fighter and if people think he's down, they're wrong. He'll be back. Things are more realistic now. We have learnt a dear lesson and it's good that it happened. There's no more extravagance."

Straeuli is sitting in the Portakabin that is his office, and he has no budget to work with. Born in Pretoria 36 years ago, he trained as a lawyer before becoming a back-row forward in the Transvaal. South Africa's exclusion because of apartheid took 10 years out of his career and his father, a lawyer, advised him to become "an international person".

Straeuli had a spell with Penarth and also played in Italy before returning to South Africa where he worked with the great Kitsch Christie. Before joining Bedford, Straeuli had a foretaste of professional rugby, having to deal with Louis Luyt, then head of Sarfu, in controversial TV deals involving Packer and Murdoch. "Money was thrown at us but we had to be on duty from 6am to 10pm."

After winning the World Cup, the players shared a trust fund and financial independence is one of the reasons why Straeuli has not left Bedford. He and his family rent a farmhouse (the wildlife doesn't quite compare with the giraffe, zebra and antelope that inhabit his father's game farm back home) and there is no mortgage to pay.

"I seem to be the only one who is not worried about a contract," said Straeuli, who becomes a free agent next month. "I feel very sorry for some of the younger players who have bought houses. I have worked 36 years for my name in rugby. I can never promise what I can't deliver. My goal is the survival of the club and to help the players get their money. I have given blood, sweat and tears. I feel a lot for this place, the players, the tradition of the club and the supporters. All deserve much better."

Against all the odds, Bedford played some great rugby and have very little to show for it. When they lost at Newcastle in January, conceding two tries in injury-time, the coach broke down on the return journey. They were stranded on the motorway and didn't get home until 6am. "Scott Murray was flat out on the back seat and this is an international player. It was as if we were back in the old amateur days."

Bedford have already lost the dynamic Samoan Junior Paramore to Gloucester and offers are pouring in for Murray. "When I look into his eyes I see so much energy, so much potential. He needs to be protected more. I'm trying desperately hard to keep him. The new owners should make a statement and ensure that he stays."

Straeuli's contract finishes next month. Will he stay? "If they want me. I don't think I'd join any other club. In adversity we have started to look after each other. We've had to dig deep and there's something special there. There's also great potential in the area, as long as we remain a club and not a franchise. I'll be very disappointed if it doesn't work out for us. It's become an obsession."

Memo to whom it may concern: New contract for Mr Straeuli, the Bedford coach that has not broken down.