Heineken Champions Cup
'I can see myself living and dying in Ireland one day, it's not like I said goodbye for keeps'
A year on from celebrating Leinster’s fourth European Cup in Bilbao, Richardt Strauss will watch today’s final from a very different vantage point.

TRACKING RICHARDT STRAUSS down proves quite an undertaking, and even when the former Ireland and Leinster hooker has been located, getting hold of him remained a challenge.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” he laughs. “There is literally no reception up here.”

Leinster's Jack McGrath and Richardt Strauss after the match Inpho / Billy Stickland Strauss with Jack McGrath after last year's Pro14 final. Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

It was only 12 months ago that Strauss was in Bilbao with Leinster, celebrating a fourth European title, and while he was not involved in the matchday squad that day, the 33-year-old had been a central figure in the province’s back-to-back victories in 2011 and 2012, starting both finals under Joe Schmidt.

By that stage, it had already been announced that Strauss would be leaving the club at the end of last season, bringing the curtain down on a nine-year career with Leinster, which yielded two Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup, two Pro12 titles and 17 Ireland caps, notably three appearances at the 2015 World Cup. 

James Tracy’s emergence as the second-choice hooker behind Seán Cronin limited Strauss’ big-game involvements in the final seasons of his Leinster career, meaning there was no long goodbye before his departure. In fact, there was hardly a goodbye.

“Yeah, I was more than happy with that,” he says.

Apart from a tribute video on stage alongside Isa Nacewa at the end-of-season awards, and ‘the honour’ of being on the pitch at full-time for the celebrations in Bilbao and at the Aviva Stadium as Leo Cullen’s side claimed a historic double, Strauss was quite content to sail off into the sunset without too much of a fuss.

The retirement of club captain Nacewa naturally drew most of the attention at the end of last season, but in Strauss, Leinster lost a stalwart of 154 appearances and a player who developed into a pillar of their early European success having arrived as a bit-part squad member.

As soon as the season had closed and the players went their separate ways, Strauss headed home to South Africa to be closer to his family having moved to Dublin in 2009, subsequently becoming an Ireland international under the three-year residency rule.

Now, life is very different for the Pretoria native, who has spent a considerable chunk of his first year of retirement working and living on a construction site at the very tip of South Africa, on the border with neighbouring Botswana.

“It’s all a bit hectic up here,” Strauss tells The42, at the end of another long and stressful day on site. “We’re at the end of the project so we’re running around a bit to get the last stuff finished and fixing some mistakes. It has been quite a big learning curve for me.”

With a degree in quantity surveying, Strauss admits he could never see himself fulfilling a desk job after rugby. He spent the summer catching up with family and friends back home and then launched himself into the next challenge. 

“I couldn’t see myself sitting in an office all day so I thought I’ll get into construction,” he explains.

Richardt Strauss Dan Sheridan / INPHO The hooker played 17 times for Ireland. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I’ll see how it goes, it has been quite tough. We’ve been working long hours. Because we’re here, we work seven days a week just because of the mere fact, if we take Saturday and Sunday off, what are we going to do? We’re in the middle of nowhere. We’re just going to sit around doing nothing here anyway.”

Although Strauss is the site manager and holds responsibility for signing off on every aspect of the build, he — like every man on the job — lives in temporary accommodation on location and only gets home for four days every month. 

“We get paid the last Friday of every month so that weekend we can go home,” the ex-hooker continues. “Drive off here on a Friday morning and then we come back the Tuesday and then we work straight again until the next pay weekend.

“I say to my folks, I may as well have stayed in Ireland. I’m probably just as far as way from everyone here than I was when playing for Leinster! I wasn’t meant to be up here this long but I suppose that’s just how it goes.

“Coming after studying, you don’t really know much at all so you try to learn as much as you can along you go and I have quite enjoyed it in a way. I spent three months basically lying around, seeing everybody I wanted to see and headed off on a couple of trips and then after that, I started working and it has been pretty flat out since then. I’ve enjoyed it here, the body feels a lot better [than when playing rugby] so that’s a positive.”

Having been working on this project for the last number of months, the finish line is now very nearly in sight for Strauss and his team, with the construction of a five-star hotel, spa and conference centre now entering its final stages. It has been a long and demanding slog.

“If I want to sound fancy, I’m the site manager,” he laughs. “I have to make sure everything gets done, all the stuff is ordered to get up here and basically oversee that everybody does what they have to do.

“I have to sign off everything we do and if I sign it off, it has to be correct and finished. There’s quite a bit of pressure and stress in that, I suppose. I have to oversee everything is done properly and obviously, there are safety measures to follow. It all falls on me really.”

The nature of the job and location means Strauss has seen very little rugby since hanging up his boots, although he recently had an artist paint the team photo from the 2011 Heineken Cup final for him, and the build-up to today’s showdown in Newcastle has naturally rekindled fond memories. 

Following Bernard Jackman’s retirement, Strauss emerged as the first-choice hooker in Schmidt’s back-to-back winning side, with his influence at the province growing as he found his feet in Ireland.

Part of the Leinster scrum that was dominated by the Northampton Saints during a horror first half in Cardiff before turning the tide to claim an incredible comeback win, Strauss remembers: “It was a funny week for me. I had a bit of a hip-pointer injury so I couldn’t really train at all that week before the final.

Richardt Strauss is tackled Colm O'Neill / INPHO In action against Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup final. Colm O'Neill / INPHO / INPHO

“It was kind of nerve-wracking and I was stressing about being fit for the final. It was the biggest game of my career and I was a big doubt. Everyone else was training and I was just sitting around waiting on the medics to say if I could play. 

“I can remember getting the all-clear and then in Cardiff on the day before the game, just starting to feel very, very nervous about the whole thing. It was such a big game and I knew I wasn’t 100% right.

“The game, it was hectic. We were getting smashed in the scrums, it just felt like we were going backwards and backwards. Obviously, after half-time, we went in, came out, and went better. There was one scrum, in particular, that day I’ll always remember. It was around halfway, we had been getting a hiding, but that particular scrum we got a penalty, we pushed them back, and we just felt it then. That’s probably when I thought ‘we’ve got this.’

“That was a great day.”

And then, 12 months later, Leinster successfully defended their crown at Twickenham, stitching a third star onto the club crest with a 42-14 win over Ulster. Again, Strauss started in the front row alongside Mike Ross and Cian Healy, with his set-piece pedigree and excellent performances in the loose standing out. 

He continues: “That was probably one of my favourite memories of the Heineken Cup. Some of the lads had to get drug tested after the trophy lift and I remember Dave Kearney couldn’t take a wee so all the lads ended up stayed behind in a suite or a box waiting for him. We all just sat around there, looking out on the pitch, had a couple of beers and had a good time. For me, that was probably my favourite memory. 

“But I was lucky. I was very lucky to come to Leinster at a time when the club really did well. We had a great team, a great set up. I was very fortunate to be part of that team. It was incredible really.”

Strauss remained an integral member of the Leinster squad under Matt O’Connor and then Cullen in the years since, featuring and performing consistently throughout each of his nine seasons at the club, although his last — the 2017/18 campaign — saw him make just seven appearances. He felt it was the right time to step away.

“I would have felt a bit more awkward if there was more made of it,” he says of his departure. “I didn’t deserve a send-off like Isa but I was pretty happy with how I went, it suited me well. I don’t think a lot of rugby players get remembered two minutes after they’ve walked out the door.

“For me, the important thing is that guys I’ve played with and against, maybe one day, they’ll sit down and someone brings up my name and they’ll think back and say ‘yeah, that guy tried to pull his weight in the team’. That’s all you can ask for.”

Although he is just one year removed from the game, Strauss couldn’t be any further away from the previous chapter of his life in Dublin, but come 5pm this evening, all tools will be downed on the building site in northern South Africa.

“I’ll make sure I’m done,” he smiles.

Brian O'Driscoll and Richardt Strauss celebrate Dan Sheridan / INPHO European Cup winners 2012. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I haven’t seen many of the games this year as if they’re on during the day, obviously I’m out and about on the site. But I wouldn’t miss the final so we have the TV ready. They show the Champions Cup games over here thankfully.

“It will bring back good memories, yeah. It’s weird to comprehend that you played some small part in it in previous years. You realise you’re lucky.

“I remember speaking to a guy like Hayden Triggs, who had a long career. We lost a Pro12 semi-final and he was sitting next to me in the changing room after, and he said ‘you know what, I’ve never won anything in my life’ and that made me realise how lucky I am. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been part of teams that have been very successful.

“Maybe when I’m a bit older and rounder I’ll appreciate all that a bit more because all that was so special. The Leinster supporters are genuinely the best in the world. The support they give, it just says a lot about the club, the province and Leinster Rugby.”

Strauss has been in touch with a number of former team-mates recently and admits he will be nervous watching on from thousands of miles away as Cullen’s side chase a historic fifth European title against Saracens.

“It’s worse watching it on TV,” he adds. “I remember in Bilbao last year it was tough in the stands, so I can only imagine what it’ll be like here on Saturday. I’ll be very nervous, yeah.

Although I’m back in South African now, that decision was purely to be closer to my family after being away from them for rugby, and I can always see myself moving back to Ireland. 

“I can see myself living and dying in Ireland one day, it’s not like I said goodbye for keeps. Sometime in the future I’ll be back, hopefully. It’ll always be special, a special place to call home.”

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman tee up Saturday’s Champions Cup final and look at the backroom problems in Munster:

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