Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Best all-round hooker on the South African front in Super Rugby at present?
It’s Adriaan Strauss, by my book.
Before Lions enthusiasts get too hot under the collar, the physical juggernaut who is Malcolm Marx probably stays the rightful Springbok first-choice, given his quite extraordinary “presence” in general play.
We don’t have too many genuinely fear-factor individuals in the Bok pool at present; the marauding Marx is indisputably one of that rare breed.
But we also know that, despite encouraging improvement of late, his throwing in at the lineout – a pivotal part of a hooker’s arsenal – remains open to occasional question.
In that respect, the 32-year-old Strauss stays a comfortable street ahead – almost certainly unmatched, in fact, by any other No 2 plying his trade for an SA franchise right now.
The Bulls lineout is a big weapon, as evidenced once again in their eye-opening 30-point humbling of the Sharks in their own stronghold on Saturday, and it isn’t just because of the tall-timber prowess of men like Lood de Jager and RG Snyman.
For Strauss, as provider of their own-throw ball, is the rugby equivalent of a Glenn McGrath or Vernon Philander for “landing” the ball on a tickey virtually every time.
Nothing’s changed there. But what has is that in other aspects of his game, Strauss is playing with all the dynamism and enthusiasm of an up-and-coming 23-year-old or thereabouts.
He was hugely influential, as a senior figure amidst a relative sea of youth in John Mitchell’s budding renaissance drive in Pretoria, in the dismantling of the Sharks.
Under Mitchell’s guidance, the Bulls have clearly upped their broad tempo of play enormously … and the veteran Strauss looks as reborn from a conditioning point of view as any, more greenhorn customer in their ranks.
His graft-rate is excellent, ball-carrying hugely effective – as evidenced by a rare, mini-avalanche of tries going his way in recent weeks – and the solid, 113kg specimen is clearly pulling his weight in an increasingly less vulnerable Bulls scrummaging unit.
The first South African to reach 150 Super Rugby caps in the Kings Park derby, Strauss is also holder of 66 Test caps for the Boks and looks like an absolute shoe-in for the extended squad in new coach Rassie Erasmus’s first handful of internationals during June.
Yes, I did remember to say “looks like”.
Let’s not forget that Strauss stepped down from green-and-gold duty at the end of 2016, after having been captain during Allister Coetzee’s highly problematic first season as mastermind.
Possibly more than a bit “gatvol” about the general sentiment around the team, the blond competitor quit as the Boks wound up a nought-from-three Test portion of their European tour that year, including humiliating maiden reverse to Italy – although he had a little oddly signalled his intention to do so well before the finish of the earlier Rugby Championship.
Just how much Strauss deserved to take the rap for the Bok team’s woes remains a matter for debate: was he simply – a bit like the description by sympathisers of a Test leadership predecessor Corne Krige years earlier – in the right place at the wrong time?
Be that as it may, Strauss quit the national cause both as skipper and player, and it had looked, admittedly, as though the cares of Bok captaincy were serving as an impediment to his own performances at the time.
But, now not even serving the Bulls in a first-out-of-the-tunnel capacity, he is back playing quite possibly some of the best personal rugby of his career in 2018.
So much so, that I would argue with some conviction that it may be worth Erasmus having an audacious little beer or coffee with Strauss to gauge whether there is any chance at all he might be willing to consider returning to the Bok fold as a seriously valuable rank-and-filer, at very least adding formidable depth and wisdom to the position he specialises in.
If the Boks are to have any hope at all of adding a third World Cup success in Japan next year, against currently long odds, they will need a strong set-piece as a vital start … something that is not beyond them.
Naturally the hooker is a fulcrum component of such a quest, and Strauss, who would be a far from over-the-hill 33 at the tournament, offers levels of expertise and reliability at a difficult trade that are hard to match.
Whilst it is true that Montpellier-based hard man Bismarck du Plessis remains an appealing like-for-like equivalent to Marx, he will be 35 by the time RWC 2019 comes along, and has been in the international wilderness since the end of the last World Cup in 2015.
If forced to name three most feasible hookers at this reasonably early point for the Bok party to have a crack at the Webb Ellis Cup next year, my own choices – with the crucial proviso all were available – would be Marx, Bongi Mbonambi and Strauss.
But of course the presence of the last-named player would depend on any enthusiasm on the part of Erasmus to coax a change of heart.
Over to you, Rassie?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing