Tigers bank on style of Stransky

Chris Hewett meets the man from Cape Town who holds the key for Leicester against Sale in Saturday's Pilkington Cup final
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The Independent Online
Decisions, decisions. Bob Dwyer has been confronted by some real brutes in his first season as Leicester coach - no one drops Dean Richards to the bench without a dozen stiff drinks and a reassuring visit to the nearest psychotherapist - but the most important judgement of all did not require even the slightest scratch of the head, let alone a long, solitary night of agonised contemplation.

When Peter Wheeler, the Tigers chief executive, asked Dwyer whether he might be interested in discussing the possibility of Joel Stransky moving from Cape Town to Welford Road, he was not kept waiting for a reply. "I must have thought about it for, oh, a good second before snatching his hand off," recalls the master tactician from Sydney. "Let's face it - blokes like Stransky don't come knocking on your door too often. 'Yep,' I said, 'we'll settle for him.' Any side in the world would be happy to have Joel on the team. There are very, very few complete outside-halves operating anywhere at the moment, but you can include him in any list you care to compile."

Dwyer may not rate Stransky's capture as the high water mark of his rugby achievement - "It wasn't much of a gamble, was it?" - but for the thousands who have paid their money at the Welford Road turnstiles over the last five months, the South African has proved the most inspired signing imaginable. When the supporters talk of the 29-year-old Springbok from Pietermaritzburg, they seldom bother to refer to his World Cup-winning drop goal against New Zealand in 1995. Nowadays, they bask in the more homely glories of his match-winning performances in Courage League and Pilkington Cup.

Indeed, they confidently expect him to win the "Pilko" for Leicester at Twickenham this weekend. Preferably, the Midlands hordes would like to see their favourite import rip the heart from the Sale midfield with his shrewd running angles, deceptively sharp scuttles into space and his ever-widening repertoire of weighted cut-out passes. If not, they will gleefully settle for a nap hand of long-range penalties and a couple of howitzer drops - in other words, a mirror image of the 21-point haul that did for Gloucester in a tight semi-final back in March.

But having sampled the mucky end of the stick in recent weeks as Leicester's championship bid spluttered to a standstill, Stransky is taking nothing for granted. "After all we've been through as a team - and remember, the rest of the guys had played four months of hard rugby before I arrived here in December - it would be a serious disappointment to finish the season with nothing, but Sale showed in our league game on Saturday that they have a strong defence and a heap of spirit. They are nobody's pushovers.

"In fact, the top end of English club rugby in general is very competitive - more so than I imagined when I came over. It has a long way to go before it matches up to Super 12 but I'd say it is only a little below Currie Cup standard back home and the sheer volume of matches we've been forced to play, particularly during April, makes a season here a serious undertaking. The weather doesn't help, either; it's pretty lousy as a rule."

In Stransky's opinion, Leicester's season slipped off the rails through fatigue, injury and deflected mental focus. "People were constantly talking about the league and cup double and we began to hear too much. With seven games in 22 days, you need to be tuned into the match in front of you and even then, the mind and body can stand only so much. Players need a week to recover from the bumps and bangs and if we had a midweek game before the cup final, I for one would find it hard to take."

Only a year ago and well before he ever dreamed that Stransky might pitch up in the east Midlands, Dwyer took the liberty of politely advising Andre Markgraaff, then Springbok coach, that he was making a pig's ear of his half-back selection by ignoring the golden boot from Newlands. Markgraaff has gone now, buried under the garbage of last winter's deeply unpleasant racism scandal, but Carel du Plessis, the new South African top dog, seems likely to follow the lead of his predecessor. Certainly, Stransky has all but abandoned hope of facing the Lions this summer.

"I knew when I agreed to sign for Leicester I would probably be sacrificing my Springbok career and there has been no contact from Carel or anyone else regarding the Lions. Not a word. I don't think I have a chance of being picked, to be frank.

"There is no political reason why that should be; I don't believe there is a conspiracy working against me because, as far as I know, the coach has a full say on who plays at Test level. If he wants to pick me, he will. But I can't see him selecting from outside South Africa; my heart wants me to believe the door is still open, but my mind tells me otherwise."

With Will Greenwood close to full fitness, Stransky will enjoy the novelty of operating with a first-choice threequarter line at Twickenham this weekend. Dwyer's first cup final team list shows just how much the Leicester back division has changed since last season's bitter disappointment against Bath - only Stuart Potter and Niall Malone survive, the latter playing full-back rather than stand-off - and if the Tigers hoover up 80 per cent of the ball for the second year running, it is difficult to imagine a craftsman of Stransky's stamp allowing them to foul up again.

Leicester (v Sale, Twickenham, Saturday): N Malone; C Joiner, S Potter, W Greenwood, L Lloyd; J Stransky, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole, J Wells, E Miller, N Back. Replacements: S Hackney or R Underwood, R Liley, A Kardooni, D West, D Richards, W Drake- Lee.