There has been much talk this week of weights and measures – about the gulf in size and power that allowed the formidable Frenchmen of Clermont Auvergne to smash Saracens to smithereens two years ago and force the Londoners into a fundamental reappraisal of their approach to physical conditioning. Yet even the best intentions have their limitations: David Strettle may have gained a few pounds by spending the last couple of seasons eating for England, but he would have to swallow a three-seater sofa to match Sitiveni Sivivatu in a tale of the tape.
“I’ve done the due diligence and I know what’s coming, but he’s a deceptive one,” says the Sarries wing in assessing the wondrous Fijian-born All Black, who returns across the water with Clermont for this afternoon’s Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham. The fact that he chooses the word “deceptive” rather than something a little more blood-curdling is instructive, for while Sivivatu has a two-stone advantage – a conservative estimate, according to those who suspect he is significantly heavier than the 15st 3lb recorded in the official statistics – the things that really worry Strettle are three S-words other than size: speed, skill and scope.
He readily agrees that Sivivatu is the world’s fastest slow-motion runner – a player who covers ground unnervingly quickly while giving the impression of wading through quicksand. “But more than that,” he adds, “he pops up all over the pitch and creates things for other people. Playing on the wing in rugby union is not like being a striker in football: in this game, you have to do a bit of everything in both attack and defence, and Sivivatu covers the full range. Also, he has that ability to be different. At this level, games tend to be won either through penalties or through a moment of brilliance. He’s a good player to have when it comes down to someone doing something beyond the norm.”
If Strettle is more of an old-style finisher, who feels most at home using his extreme pace in the wide channels – as a general rule, it is not advisable to go in search of contact when you’re 13st dripping wet – he brings more to the mix now than when Brian Ashton first picked him for England, pretty much out of the blue, seven years ago. Then he was a whizz-bang merchant playing “disco rugby”, as he calls it. Now he is a fully fledged workaholic steeped in the Saracens method. He has scored heavily in the Premiership this season and is fighting it out with another Fijian wing, Vereniki Goneva of Leicester, for the “top gun” award, but he is no one’s idea of a glory hunter.
Quite the opposite. The professional era has produced plenty of backs prepared to serenade audiences with tunes blown on their own trumpets, but the 30-year-old from Cheshire is rather less than half full of himself. “Show me a high-scoring wing and I’ll show you two functioning centres,” he says when invited to discuss his scoring exploits since the start of term (10 tries in 16 league outings and another four in Europe). “You can be the best wing in the world and still score most of your tries by simply collecting the ball and dotting it down over the line.”
If modesty and an engaging line in gentle self-deprecation come naturally to Strettle, it is equally true that he talks like a man who has suffered more than his fair share of knock-backs. Particularly at international level.
Ashton, the coach who threw him into the fires of the 2007 meeting with Ireland at Croke Park and was rewarded with a debut try, would certainly have taken him to the World Cup in France later that year, but the curse of the metatarsal dictated otherwise. Strettle was also in the shake-up for a place at the 2011 tournament, but Martin Johnson saw Matt Banahan as a better bet, primarily because the Bath man was twice as big. This said more about Johnson than it did about Strettle, who was bitterly frustrated by the decision.
Next year’s global gathering could mark a hat-trick of the unwanted variety. Johnson’s successor, Stuart Lancaster, had no hesitation in restoring Strettle to the red-rose elite – he was the first-choice No 11 in the 2012 Six Nations – but he lost his place during the Test series in South Africa that summer and has since seen a bunch of people selected ahead of him. He did feature in Argentina 10 months ago, putting a try past the Pumas in Salta, but did not quite hit the heights. A few weeks later, Lancaster relegated him to the second-tier Saxons squad.
Which is where he sits, kicking his heels and clinging to whatever words of encouragement come his way. “Stuart has told me the door’s not closed,” he says. “He told me that he was keen to look at younger players with the World Cup in mind and I can understand that. From my point of view, I have to believe that everything is up for grabs – that if I continue to perform well in club rugby, people will notice. The thing that makes me proud of myself at the moment is that I’m holding my form for Saracens. That’s important to me.
“If you’re involved at the top level for any length of time – and I’ve been at it eight years, seven of them as an international – you’re not going to get through without some knocks here and there. I’ve had my disappointments, but I also know things can change suddenly and work in your favour. When I think back to the way my England debut came about… one moment I was enjoying a day off from training with Harlequins, the next I was preparing to fill in for Jason Robinson at Croke Park.”
The close-knit, band-of-brothers way of life at Saracens is not to everyone’s taste. There are those on the outside – coaches, players and pundits alike – who regard them with the deepest suspicion, accusing them of being a cult rather than a club. Yet those on the inside, Strettle included, swear by the black shirt and everything it represents. So what is it that makes the difference? “Basically,” he responds, “it’s this: from the owner at the top to the newest player in the academy, everyone is made to feel a part of things, everyone feels valid. The test of that is in selection. When you sit down and try to pick the best starting XV… it must be a nightmare for the coaches.”
And at the heart of matters is Steve Borthwick, the club captain, who retires at the end of the campaign. Rather like the team he leads, he knows what it is to absorb criticism, some of it deeply personal and much of it spectacularly ill-informed. It is on this subject that Strettle speaks out most strongly.
“What does Steve bring to Saracens? Anything I say wouldn’t begin to do him justice,” he comments. “The way he was portrayed in some parts of the media during his time as England captain made me so angry, because the people peddling that stuff didn’t know the first thing about it. No one works harder or takes his job more seriously and it’s been a privilege to play alongside him. As for that rubbish about him being dour – hell, he’s one of the best motivational speakers I’ve ever heard. As I told him the other day, ‘If you don’t go into coaching, you’ll make millions in the City’. I’ve been there when he’s been addressing bankers and the like; he has them eating out of his hand.”
Which leads us back, in a roundabout way, to food consumption. “Yes, I’ve done everything possible to pile on the kilos,” says Strettle, wincing just a little. “But there’s only so much you can eat, especially when you don’t enjoy the taste any more. From that perspective, retirement will be a blessing. But that’s a long way off.”