Stransky emphasises the class divide

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The Independent Online
Joel Stransky was not a happy man. It wasn't just that Leicester's league title prospects had been dented by their injury-time defeat at Gloucester on Tuesday evening. He had been particularly upset by unruly Kingsholm spectators.

"Frankly, I was disgusted," said the 29-year-old fly-half, who is no stranger to partisan crowds in his native South Africa. "Some of them were very badly behaved. A lot of abuse was flying around and after the final whistle a few of our players were jostled. It's no reflection on their players, who are a great bunch, but you don't expect that sort of thing in rugby."

For most of the match, it seemed that Leicester would repeat their recent Pilkington Cup semi-final victory on the same ground and pull within one point of leaders Wasps with a game in hand. "Actually, we played quite well at times but we had a disastrous spell when we kept giving away penalties," said Stransky. "We showed a lack of discipline, and Gloucester capitalised."

Yesterday's one-sided contest at Bath suggests that the Kingsholm defeat will come to be seen as the downward turning-point of Leicester's league challenge. But there is little doubt that Stransky's arrival at Welford Road just over three months ago was exactly the tonic the Midland club needed following their morale-sapping European Cup final defeat by Brive. His composure and sure touch helped to steady the ship, and were evident again yesterday amid the carnage at the Recreation Ground.

But after being toppled from his perch as the drop-goal hero who sealed the World Cup for the Rainbow Nation, Stransky's own morale was in need of an uplift. "I hadn't been playing well so it was no surprise when I lost my place in the Springboks' team last summer. However, when I was left out of the squad which toured Argentina, France and Wales last year, I was disappointed that the coach [Andre Markgraff, who has since resigned] picked two fly-halves from his own province [Griqualand] who weren't playing any better than me.

"That was the last straw. I'd been playing provincial rugby for nine seasons, since I was 19 in fact, and I wasn't enjoying it any longer. A lot of the players were really unhappy. Things are OK with South African rugby on the pitch, but it isn't a healthy set-up otherwise. I talked to my wife and we agreed that the time had come to get out."

More than one English club vied for Stransky's services, but Leicester got the nod because of the international reputation of their Australian coach Bob Dwyer. "He has a record which speaks for itself. Most players would love to have the opportunity to play for him."

However, when Stransky took up his two-and-a-half-year contract at Leicester in the first week of January, he must have wondered whether he had made a mistake. "We certainly had a culture shock coming from Cape Town into the middle of a big freeze. I'd been deep-sea fishing, playing golf and eating crayfish. But the guys at Leicester made me feel welcome and it didn't take long to get used to the team's methods. Bob's gameplan is quite basic and even though there were slight differences it's the same in South Africa if you switch provinces."

The culture shock was repeated when his wife, Karen, and baby daughter, Sabrina, followed him over three weeks later. "It was probably worse for them because the weather prevented them from getting out and making friends, but they're settled in now."

Before leaving South Africa, Stransky sold his shares in a Cape Town pub and a sports marketing business. But, despite his immediate commitment to Leicester, he is already contemplating life after rugby.

Like many other players, he has had his appetite whetted by media work, and he enjoyed his recent taste of Five Nations broadcasting. His objectivity certainly marks him out as a natural. "It's difficult to compare English club rugby with the provincial game in South Africa. That's a much higher standard and it's got higher since the arrival of the Super 12. Because our season is at a different time to yours, we get to play under any new laws first. That means northern-hemisphere rugby is always having to catch up."

All of which suggests the Lions face a torrid examination this summer. "It will be very tough for them after such a long season because there will be no let-up. Many of the provincial games will be even harder than the Tests. I'll be available but somehow I don't think I'll be selected, especially as I'm not playing in the Super 12. I'll miss it, but nothing can erase the memory of the World Cup final. Mandela coming into the dressing- room wearing a Springbok shirt gave us a major lift. We weren't going to lose after that."

After such a magical moment, not even a night of unsolicited hostilities at Kingsholm can keep the smile off Stransky's face for long.