‘Back into the fire’

After a difficult season with Ireland, Peter Stringer is ‘chomping at the bit’ to get back on the pitch for Munster’s quarter-final with Gloucester tomorrow, he tells Edward Newman.

THESE are the days Peter Stringer lives for — the knock-out Heineken Cup match, the red letter days when Munster grapple with their own European destiny and, if they manage to get on a roll, generate the capacity to mobilise an entire province to march behind them. It’s the period in Munster’s season, post-Six Nations, when, as he puts it, they’re “straight back into the fire”.

And it’s better than been left out in the cold as his Six Nations campaign proved. Since 2000, Stringer had been centre stage in a green shirt, but his international career appears to be on hold since losing his place or, as some rightly argue, made a scapegoat after the Georgia match at the World Cup. He didn’t sulk when he was dropped, and hasn’t since.

“I made a conscious decision to keep my head down and keep working away,” he says. “I didn’t want to be moping around the place and affecting my attitude going into training to the detriment of the squad. I’ve seen lads over the years who weren’t in the squad having a lax attitude and I didn’t want to be that person, to be seen as messing around and not being focused on things to do.”

On returning home, he played his part in helping Munster negotiate the turbulent shark-infested “pool of death”, and it looked as though he had done enough against Wasps in the Thomond rain last January to unseat Ireland’s number nine incumbent, Eoin Reddan. But Eddie O’Sullivan stuck with the Wasps man.

Ever and always modest and courteous, Stringer politely bats away the idea that Ireland have won more matches in the past 12 months when he started on the side. When he’s not there, Ireland struggle and lose. It’s worth remembering he was injured for that grand slam clash with France in February 2007; dropped for the France and Argentina games at the RWC, and played only cameo roles off the bench during Ireland’s worst run in the Six Nations since 1999.

“I’ll leave that assessment up to you,” he responds. “I’m not going to comment on anything. It hasn’t really come into my head. Whatever difference I would make is my own personal opinion but I think one person doesn’t make a team or a squad.”

He says, however, he owes Eddie O’Sullivan a lot for helping his career, but with O’Sullivan gone, a regime change may see Stringer restored to the number nine position. A senior player with 82 caps already to his name, he is nonetheless reticent when asked what kind of coach he’d like to see take Ireland forward.

“Since I came back from the Six Nations, I’ve had purely Munster on my mind, and this match in Gloucester. For us to comment at this stage is not right. We know absolutely nothing (about O’Sullivan’s successor). We know as much as you do about who is going to come in, who has been approached, who’s been asked. I don’t know. And I don’t know anything about the backroom dealings.

“I’m sure they (IRFU) will put a good process in place and get the right guy in to bring Ireland forward. I’m sure they’ll pick the right man.”

Recently he has been garnering more attention off the field following the publication of a children’s book, Moxie the Underdog, for which he was the inspiration. The story revolves around Moxie who faces impossible odds and overcomes them. It’s hard to class him as an underdog — terrier spirited, certainly. The author was ostensibly inspired by Stringer’s heroics in the 2006 Heineken Cup final, highlighted by a try and the sight of the little man with the big heart bringing down Nicolas Brusque close to the touchline in a heart-stopping second half in Cardiff.

He might be returning there yet for a semi-final if Ospreys win for the final on May 24, but the first hurdle is Kingsholm, which hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for him or most of his teammates. Apart from himself and O’Gara, the Munster backline has evolved, however, as has their style of rugby since their previous visits to Gloucester’s backyard.

In October 2002 when Munster lost 35-13, he had O’Gara, Mossie Lawlor, Rob Henderson, Mike Mullins, John Kelly and Jeremy Staunton outside him and, for their next visit in January 2004, the three quarters included O’Gara, Anthony Horgan, Henderson, Mullins, Kelly and Shaun Payne all licking their wounds following a 22-11 defeat in the West Country.

“They’re a tough side especially at home as we’ve learnt in the past. But despite talk that it is an intimidating venue, I found it a great place to play. They’ve very passionate supporters. I remember that it was a great place especially when we have our travelling support over there as well.

“The last time they were behind the goal, the two sets of supporters were competing against each other and there was nearly another game going on outside of the pitch.

“They’re very respectful of rugby and very knowledgeable. It should prove to be another great encounter. Even though they’ve lost a couple of games, come Saturday all that will go out the window. It will all come down to what happens on the day. I’m sure because it’s the Heineken Cup it will spur them on as well.”

There is this fearlessness now within the squad when they travel away from home, a bloody-mindedness that no venue is too intimidating. It’s a mindset that has served them well in the past when travelling to English premiership or French top 14 grounds. Welford Road, March 2003, springs to mind when Stringer played the game of his life to help overwhelm then champions, Leicester.

“That mindset comes with success,” says Stringer. “It comes when you play these top sides in the Heineken Cup. A decade ago when we were new to the competition it was daunting to go to France, or going to play these English teams in their backyard. We used to see them on TV and never got to play them that often.

“We’re used to it now; we’re used to playing these big teams week in week out. I think winning breeds confidence. We have a lot of experience in the squad now. A lot of new guys have come in this season who bring something new and bring that added confidence. It’s something you need when you meet these big away fixtures because if you don’t have it you’re going to come away with a loss.

“It’s crucial we travel there with the confidence and with the ability to mix things up if we need to and play the game we know and the game we’ve been successful with in the last couple of seasons.

“The ability to change things if things aren’t going right, and have the experience out there on the pitch with the guys who can make those decisions and mix it up as needs be. It’s exciting and there are exciting guys on our team that have the ability to do that.”

THE TWO inter-provincials against Ulster and Connacht were of huge benefit to the team says Stringer, helping them rediscover their rhythm following the break for the Six Nations. For Ulster, their game looked beautifully in tune.

“Coming back after a Six Nations it’s always difficult to get into a rhythm again. There is a change of calls. Inter pro games are normally the toughest we play in a season, these guys know each other so well, you’re fighting for that top team in Ireland spot and they always prove to be the most physical games.

“It’s a period where we’re straight back into the fire, there’s no relaxation period where we’re slowly building into things, we’re straight in there and I think that’s what we needed to prepare properly for this quarter final.”

Stringer had to flit between Ireland camp and Magners League games against Edinburgh and Cardiff in February and March. There was disappointment at not starting for Ireland but, as he said already, he wasn’t one to get down over his predicament.

“I’m chomping at the bit to be honest to get on the pitch and to play a few games. It has been difficult for me but I worked hard over the Six Nations. Even though I wasn’t playing (for Ireland) it was a matter of trying to keep sharp. The challenge for me was to keep working, not to fall back but to keep my head down. Not to be disappointed but to keep working away as I’ve always done because you can lose sight of when your next game is going to be.

“I need time on the pitch now. I’m eager. Can’t wait.”

When Saturday comes and Stringer once more goes into the fire.

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