To kill off Chiefs we must focus
STRAUSS insists Blues will have to be wired in to bag a bonus
RICHARDT STRAUSS could afford himself a chance to smile wryly at the year just past as the bells rang in a little under three weeks ago.
As years go, 2012 was certainly an unforgettable one for the Pretoria- born hooker. The roller-coaster nature of sport, as much as life itself, swung from lows to highs and then repeated the pattern. But as he approaches his 27th birthday later this month, Strauss believes that the calendar year just gone was a positive one all round.
"It has been tough to miss out these last few weeks because I love playing for Leinster. Injuries are part and parcel of sport and you can't dwell on the negative for too long. But it is a frustration because this is exactly how my year started last year with a knock which ruled me out for a few weeks.
"But we all know how last season ended." And a pause. Having crammed so much into his own personal CV over the last 12 months, it is clear that it has merely served to whet the man's appetite. But, conversely, with two Heineken Cup winners medals and his first international caps for Ireland, he already has honours that most players would move heaven and earth for.
"Well, you know, it would be hard to complain," he said with a smile as he gazed across the packed RDS last weekend as his side raced to a bonus-point victory over the Scarlets.
Life, he says, is good. A knee injury picked up in the Round 4 clash against ASM Clermont Auvergne at the Aviva Stadium in mid-December has prevented him from featuring in recent weeks. However, he has made positive strides of late and is excited about returning to action.
For a man in a hurry, there is never a good time to pause.
Though Exeter are in the final round of their debut European season, Strauss is one of a small number of the current squad -- including David Kearney, Ian Madigan, Eoin O'Malley, Mike Ross and Devin Toner - to have played in Sandy Park.
It was a little under three years ago when a side mixed with youth and experience - featuring seasoned stalwarts Girvan Dempsey, Trevor Hogan, Malcolm O'Kelly and Stan Wright - defeated the Chiefs 22-10. But it was clear for all to see, including Strauss, that they were a club on the up.
"Absolutely," he agreed on the eve of the squad's departure to the south of England.
"And you could see even then that their excellent facilities, the enthusiasm of their support, the quality of their coaches and talented players that they were going to be a force to be reckoned with.
"Looking back, because I wasn't featuring all that regularly in the senior team at the time, playing B&I Cup games like the one over in Exeter were huge for me. They gave me a real taste of what it means to play for Leinster and you only need to look at some of the youngsters who have come through in recent years from that team and teams since then to see that competition's importance.
"You always know whenever you face an English side that they are going to be really physical anyway, because their league is so combative.
"But Exeter have a lot of skilful players too who were really to the fore in Round 1 and have impressed throughout the pool stages.
"Their rise in English rugby first, and more recently European rugby, has been really impressive.
"They're a side that has improved year upon year and we need only look at the close 9-6 scoreline against them back in October to see that they are going to be a real handful at home in Sandy Park. Yes, it's going to be a big test."
Strauss is used to Tests and was proud to wear the green of Ireland in November. "To have my parents and some friends over from South Africa to share in that memory was really special for me.
"I came to Leinster firstly to play well for the team because the club showed a lot of faith in me. Since the day I arrived the staff have been first class and it has been a pleasure to play in this team.
"So to go and play international rugby was a dream come true. The whole experience here in Ireland has been incredibly special."
Strauss doesn't buy into the suggestion that Exeter have little to play for with a quarter-final berth outside of their grasp.
The passion of their home support will be a hugely motivating factor for the English side.
From Leinster's perspective though, much like last weekend, the challenge is on trying to implement their own game-plan acknowledging that the province needs to focus first on the process before the kindness of other sides' efforts comes into the equation.
"Focus is the big word for us this week. We're still in the Heineken Cup, which is the most important thing, but we know that we'll have to put in one of our best performances in recent memory to get what we need over in Sandy Park.
"At the start of the year we were without a lot of players through injury and as a consequence we mightn't have been as fluid as we would have liked.
"But a lot of the younger guys really stepped up and they are supplementing quality players like Isa (Nacewa) and the Lions trio Drico (Brian O'Driscoll), Luke (Fitzgerald) and Rob (Kearney), who are coming back after their own lay-offs," he added.
"So with a few wins under our belts now against Connacht, away to Edinburgh and at home last weekend, hopefully we're getting a bit of rhythm together and upping our stride.
"That's what we're going to try to build on this week."
The gauntlet has been laid down.