- Former Cheetahs and Sharks centre Andries Strauss talks about the current state of South African rugby and the decision to ditch Super Rugby for a newly-formed PRO16 Rainbow Cup competition.
- He reflects on missing out on Springbok selection over the course of his playing career and why he rates incumbent Springbok inside centre Damian de Alllende so highly in spite of public criticism.
- The two-time Currie Cup winner also previews the Currie Cup semi-finals to be played on Saturday and assesses the strengths of the four teams as they go in search of domestic dominance.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of an expanded PRO16 competition?
Andries Strauss: Towards the latter part of my career I played a couple of seasons in the UK. I always thought that it would be a logical move for the South African teams to compete in the north. The Rainbow Cup will offer something fresh for the public to enjoy. In many ways Covid-19 forced our hand into going north and, in the short to medium-term, I think it will be good for South African rugby in terms of generating TV viewership and interest. It is sad that South Africa have stepped away from Super Rugby and was a competition that generated a lot of interest. As a schoolboy I remember having to make a plan to skip class to watch the Friday morning matches. It was great to see players from Australia and New Zealand compete in South Africa, but towards the latter part of the competition it lost a bit of intrigue and just became more of the same. There were so many teams and variables and people lost interest, which is why I feel this change comes at a great time to get people watching rugby on TV again and have them fill the stadiums in the future post-pandemic. It will be great to have new heroes. It’s disappointing that the Cheetahs and Kings are missing out on the expanded PRO16 competition because I feel that they add a tremendous amount of value to South African rugby. The more teams you have competing on a global stage against international opposition, the more players will be exposed to those conditions and the bigger our player pool will be to select from when it comes to our national team. However, having said that, the current economic climate simply does not allow for that.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of South African rugby?
Andries Strauss: Firstly you have to be very careful to go up against Nick Mallett and Swys de Bruin because both are very knowledgeable rugby men. (The SuperSport pundits expressed their concerns over the quality of product served up by South Africa’s rugby franchises). There is a concern that the level of rugby in South Africa is not where it should be, but we have to be cognisant of the fact that the teams have not been able to prepare as they would have for these competitions. Their on-field training time has been limited along with the time they spend together as a team and the chance to build a team culture. All the factors that contribute towards making a team great have been chopped up into bite-size bits and they haven’t been able to fully tap into that. Coupled with those constraints, we have so many South African rugby players plying their trade abroad. You can’t fault the players for the doing that or the system at large. Rugby has evolved into a global game and we are going to have to find ways to keep the best players in South Africa so that they can compete against each other week-in and week-out. I don’t think that money is the biggest contributing factor to players heading abroad. There are plenty of playing opportunities abroad and in contrast, the opportunities for the amount of players we have is limited in South Africa at this stage. That is why there are so many South Africans playing abroad. The challenge is to try to retain the premier players in South Africa and that is not an easy feat.
Sport24 asked: Do you regret never having played for the Springboks?
Andries Strauss: Yes, I have regrets having never played for the Springboks as that is the dream of anyone who plays rugby in South Africa. Many guys look back on their careers and say, ‘I’ve got no regrets’ but when I look back on mine there are plenty of times during my career when I probably could have done things differently and things may have worked out in another way. Having said that, I’m not sulking about my rugby career. It was great, I enjoyed it and I made a lot of special memories. However, not pulling the green and gold over my shoulders in a Test match is something that eluded me. I wouldn’t say that it keeps me up at night, but sometimes it does haunt me a bit... I remember when I started playing, De Wet Barry and Marius Joubert were playing for the Stormers and they became the Springbok centre pairing. Then later on Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie came to the fore. Just as I thought I could become part of the Springbok group, Francois Steyn took the scene by storm. On the flipside, the list of quality centres in South Africa – along with Adrian Jacobs and Gcobani Bobo - helped me lift my game if only at provincial level. When I was playing the game, every year it was highly competitive to become a Springbok because we had a lot of talent in our midst and it should always be that way. It should never be easy to become a Springbok. Those who become Springboks really deserve it because no one earns a Test without putting in incredibly hard work into make that dream a reality.
Sport24 asked: What is your take on Damian de Allende’s development?
Andries Strauss: I was really surprised that Damian got so much heat when he was still playing in South Africa because I always thought he was a great player. During the latter part of my playing career, Damian was coming through the ranks and he was very tough to play against. He is strong, skilful, fast and physical. The bottom line is that you don’t play 47 Test matches if you can’t play rugby. Everyone is allowed to have their opinion, but a bloke doesn’t play so many Tests and win a Rugby World Cup if he isn’t a good rugby player. Damian is an incredible player and is coming into his own at Munster and I’m really happy for him… For me, the incumbent centre pairing of De Allende and Lukhanyo Am has proved a revelation for South Africa. There is no need to go and change too much but, having said that, injuries and a loss of form are part of the oval game.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of the Bulls’ shopping spree?
Andries Strauss: Jake White is building a formidable side in Pretoria and is getting the best out of those players as well. As a sports agency, we have been fortunate enough to have been part of some of those deals. More importantly, it’s vital for South African rugby that the Bulls are strong. When the Bulls win tournaments, it seems that the national team does the same. I’m quite excited about the fact that the Bulls are putting together a good unit and have extremely exciting young players in their midst as well which bodes well for them long-term… The mooted return of Francois Hougaard and Johan Goosen is good for South African rugby. Goosen still has a lot of rugby left in him and he will be the first to admit that he hasn’t had as much time in the Springbok jersey as people predicted he would have. What he will want to do back in South Africa is get himself back into the Springbok fold, play for the team and make a positive impact. Hougaard on the other hand has had a successful career with the Springboks and has played abroad for quite some time. I think he has got a lot of knowledge to share with the players coming through the ranks at the Bulls. Knowing Hougie, he is one of the hardest working players out there and that is something that can rub off on the young players coming through the system at the Bulls irrespective of the position they play. Most guys would want to play for the Springbok for as long as they can and as many games as they can. Being on 46 Tests, Hougaard is only a few away from the big 50. It’s a milestone he would want to achieve, but the fact of the matter is he is just a talented player and makes a positive contribution to the side whether playing at number nine or on the wing.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the Currie Cup semi-finals?
Andries Strauss: The Currie Cup is special and has always been regarded as one of the top competitions in South Africa. The Currie Cup is a competition which is close to my heart and I was fortunate enough to win it on two occasions… It’s a big weekend with the Bulls taking on the Lions at Loftus Versfeld in the first semi-final. The Lions have really played well towards the latter end of the competition, but seem to chop and change their team quite regularly. You don’t often see the same XV running onto the field two weeks in a row, but they play an exciting brand of rugby and are always competitive. They are never out of the fight. Meanwhile, the Bulls have been really consistent throughout the whole competition. They boast a strong team and White is getting the most out of all the players. Western Province host the second semi-final at Newlands and I know they will want to play a Currie Cup final at the iconic stadium one more time. They will be hoping that the Lions can beat the Bulls in Pretoria and then they manage a win over the Sharks. It would be a great send-off for the old stadium. Western Province boast exciting young backline talent, but much of John Dobson side’s success has been determined by their strong pack of forwards. If the Sharks are going to come down to Cape Town and cause an upset they are going to have to stand up physically to Province’s forwards and then get their backs going. Under Sean Everitt, the Sharks have played an exciting brand of rugby and there are a few stars in the team. Semi-finals are always tight matches and it’s going to be exciting to see what transpires.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests. Who gets invitations?
Andries Strauss: I’m a keen golfer, but not a quality one! My handicap index is a 6.5 at the moment. Who wouldn’t want Tiger Woods as a dinner guest? Woods is one of the best sportsmen we have seen in our age. He came back from multiple injuries and setbacks in life to win the 2019 Masters. He has won 15 majors and was the no.1 golfer in the world for longer than anyone else. To achieve that as a sportsman takes a tremendous amount of mental strength, ability and hard work. I would love to have him over to tap into his knowledge and the character traits which enabled him to do that. As sportsmen we often get caught up in only admiring sports people, but there are so many other brilliant individuals out there who we can learn so much from. Richard Branson is someone I would want to have a chat with. He has climbed the ladder and has a think-outside-the-box approach to life and business. I’m currently reading a book by David Goggins called Can’t Hurt Me: Master your mind and defy the odds. Just reading his story and taking in what he has been through it would be nice to have a chat with him as well. Those are the type of guests I’d invite to draw inspiration from.