Joel Stransky: 'That single kick changed my life'

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The Independent Online

Indisputably, it is one of the saddest sights in world sport.

Players who have reached the top of their sport, who have achieved international renown and celebrity status, see their lives fall apart when the adoring crowd moves on, when a new hero is feted.



Then, all too often, the headlines are of the worst kind. Soccer saw the very public and sad demise of George Best; now, English Premiership followers are being haunted by images of Paul Gascoigne, unarguably once England's most talented footballer, being gently led into drying out clinics and sectioned under the Mental Health Act.



South Africa has a particular sporting hero who might equally have lost his way. Joel Stransky's whole life changed the minute the drop goal attempt which he successfully steered between the goalposts at Ellis Park sailed over. It won the Springboks the 1995 Rugby World Cup and earned Stransky the gratitude and adulation of a nation.



Happily, Joel Stransky was made of sterner stuff. As he says "I have never been one to dwell on the past, I was always able to move on."



Today, all over the world, celebrity status is quickly acquired by leading sportsmen and women. Nadal in tennis, Woods in golf, Matfield in rugby, Hamilton in motor racing: these are men who have rapidly become household names, recognised everywhere. In South Africa, Joel Stransky is known just about everywhere he goes. Is that a pleasure or a pain?



"That single kick definitely changed my life in many ways. We all got propelled to an element of celebrity stardom which means your privacy is gone. And sometimes it's gone forever.



"But those are the little prices to pay. Frankly, it's not a problem for me. I would rather be recognised for having achieved something than not. It is a great honour to be recognised. And we did do something special."



But the fuss and adulation that helped destroy men like Best and Gascoigne? "Life can be hard to handle, it is up to the individual" says Stransky. "You either handle it or you don't. I didn't find it difficult because I always thought it was a great honour. I saw all the accolades and recognition in that light. There are times when it can be a little frustrating. In the early days, there were times when my wife and I couldn't go out to dinner because you would be interrupted in your meal. But those are minor things, really."



Besides, just a few months after the World Cup triumph, Stransky was given a thumping dose of reality concerning life when his beloved mother, Ishbel, died at the tragically early age of 52. They had been very close.



"My parents were an enormous influence on my life. The best way to describe my Mum was that ours was a real Mum/elder son relationship. A lot of the passion for life came from her side. My relationship with my Dad, Barry, who is still alive, was the typical father/son situation, times of outdoors life and sport.



"My parents gave me enormous support and instilled great values, such as integrity and fairness, within me."



They ensured he enjoyed the finest possible education, too. He grew up in Cape Town and went to Rondebosch Boys High School before switching to Maritzburg College, Natal, for his senior matric years, when his parents moved. Maritzburg toughened him, he felt; it was a slightly harsher environment and as a boarder, strong lessons were inculcated. There was an important side effect, too, besides the good quality of education.



At Rondebosch, he'd played cricket (with Gary Kirsten among others) as much as rugby. ‘A very average medium pace bowler and all rounder' he said disparagingly, of his doubtless excellent technique at a variety of sports he played: rugby, cricket, tennis, athletics...



He remembers the day at Maritzburg when, as a 16 year-old, he was chosen for a pre-season practice match. There was a goalkicker in the other team, but not in Joel's. He volunteered, kicked goals from all over the field that day and the rest, as they say, is history.



But when the roars of the crowd had at last died away and Stransky, after a brief interlude late in his career overseas with English club Leicester, had retired, he moved on. By then happily married to Karen, they now have a daughter, Sabrina who is 12 and a son, Matt, aged eight. His family, you can be sure, helps Stransky keep his feet firmly on the ground. But he has plenty of other activities in his busy life for he carved out a business career that comfortably and naturally replaced his focus on rugby.



"I work in TV and love doing that. That is what I call my bit of moonlighting. But I also run a big company employing 800 people with a turnover close to R1 billion this year. That is a great challenge."



Stransky's company, Altech Netstar, is involved in stolen vehicle recovery and management systems. It is 13 years old and, as he says, "Sadly, we operate in the crime sector. We like to think we're the biggest in our sector in South Africa. It has been wonderfully satisfying and very challenging. In fact, it's been an unbelievable challenge of expanding a new business and hoping you are doing it well.



"It's a huge responsibility but we have great people and a strong management team. That is important."



He offers a concerned glimpse at the general political scene within South Africa today. The progress made in this country over the last 15 years has, he thinks, in a bizarre sense, contributed to the present difficulties. "The progress has been phenomenal. Now, we have a headache from this exponential growth.



"What is happening can be painted as a bleak picture, if you want to look at it that way. But I believe it is the result of a very positive period for this country. Now, like so many countries, we are feeling the effects of outside influences. But I believe in this country and its future; I don't accept this doom and gloom attitude. I love this country dearly but I will say, it broke my heart to see Africans killing Africans just because they lived in this country."



At 41, Joel Stransky has much to feel proud of in his life. But the need for new challenges, which represents the sportsman's classic fix, remains as strong as ever. What he says in that respect surprises me.



"I would like to coach rugby again. I'll tell you one of the happiest things that ever happened to me in my whole life. While I was still playing, I once coached an Under 13s side, a little bunch of backs in Cape Town, for one season. Just fifteen minutes into our first game, they called a move we had practised and scored a lovely try. I'll never forget the pleasure that gave me.



"Passing on your knowledge and seeing someone else use that knowledge and make a success of it is hugely rewarding. I felt something similar when I was involved doing some coaching over at Leicester. So yes, I feel I would like to go back and coach and put something back into the game.



"But of course, it's a perilous occupation. So to do it well, you would have to do it for more than the money. I loved the coaching I did; it was the pressure of rugby and the politics that made it harder. If I coached, I would want to do it because it was my passion, just because I enjoyed it, because I'd be enjoying every second of what I was doing. If you are a true rugby man, I think that's possible. It remains a dream at the moment but we'll see."



His own experiences overseas at Leicester make him concede that standing in the way of young South African rugby men who want to go to England or France, is difficult. It is, he says, the whole experience; another country, different lifestyle, new culture. You can't buy that kind of education.



Yet he understands, too, the worries of countries like New Zealand and South Africa, fearful of losing their best players. As he says, if you allow your top players to go you weaken your whole system because lesser players replace the cream.



His solution? "Life is all about a balance and if I was in charge that's what I would seek. My view is, if you have 14 teams of 30 professional players, we are paying a lot of very average players to be professional. There is only so much money so maybe we should have a smaller base but pay the best players more.



"The trouble is, rugby is not like golf where you can carry on playing until you're 50. You have between four and seven years at your peak in rugby and in that time you have to set yourself up for life. The fact is, for most, when it's over they are left with not the biggest education and not much understanding of business."



Happily, for Joel Stransky, he doesn't fit into that category.



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