‘I was finished with South African rugby. Playing for Ireland felt natural’

New to the Parish: The South African-born Richardt Strauss on ‘clean’ Ireland and surviving a major health scare

Richard Strauss, the  Ireland and Leinster rugby player. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Richard Strauss, the Ireland and Leinster rugby player. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


Richardt Strauss hates big cities. He grew up in a small town called Harrismith in the Free State province of South Africa and struggled to settle when he later moved to the regional city of Bloemfontein. When he first arrived in Ireland he chose to live in the Wicklow countryside, near Glendalough, and even though he now lives in the Dublin suburbs, he avoids making trips into the city centre. “I feel claustrophobic in cities. Too many people make me feel really nervous. If I go into town it’s in and out quickly.”

Strauss was 23 when he left his parents and three older brothers and moved to Ireland after he was offered the opportunity to play rugby with Leinster. Having played with South Africa in the under-19s Rugby World Cup and with the Free State Cheetahs, Strauss felt his career was “stagnating”. His older brother, also a rugby player, had visited Ireland before but for Strauss it was his first time in the country.

“It might sound strange but everything felt really clean here,” remembers Strauss, who arrived in Dublin in November 2009. “When you walk around the streets in South Africa in certain parts of the country it looks dirty and a bit scruffy but here everything felt so fresh and open.”

The young athlete threw himself into his rugby training but quickly discovered how difficult it was to meet people outside what he calls the “rugby bubble”. “The other lads had their families and friends here in Ireland outside of rugby, whereas I only had the rugby world. If you don’t have kids that go to school it’s quite hard to meet people.”

Seo libh canaidh

Three years after moving to Ireland, Strauss began playing for the national rugby team. Shortly before his debut match in the Aviva Stadium, he decided to learn the lyrics of the Irish national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann. “I just felt if I was willing to play for the country then I should probably try and learn the national anthem. I went online and found it phonetically and learned it by myself that way.”

Did he feel uneasy playing against South Africa in his first game with the Irish team? He says it felt like his time playing rugby for his home country was over. “I’d made the decision that I was finished with South African rugby and playing for Ireland felt natural.”

Late last year, the inclusion of foreign players on the national team led to a debate about how long a person should live in the country before they become eligible to play for Ireland. Strauss says he was lucky that he was one of the earlier “foreigners” to play for Irish rugby. “It’s a weird debate because the rules say you have to be here three years so if you’ve served your time, what’s the problem? If they want to make the time period longer, that’s fair enough, but players are just going to come over here younger.”

In 2013, after Strauss had suffered a series of concussions on the pitch, his physio insisted he visit a hospital for tests. An MRI revealed he had some blood in the back of his brain. He was admitted for further tests, which led to the discovery of a hole in his heart.

“The doctor came into the room and said ‘You’ve got a hole in your heart and it looks like you had a stroke’. I was like, what the hell is going on? That was scary.”

He had to wait 24 hours until he was given a full diagnosis of his condition. When he called his parents to give them the news they immediately offered to jump on the next flight to Europe.

“They obviously got a fright, like me, but I told them there was no point in coming over. I’d just got the news and didn’t really know the full story until the next day, when the neurologist and cardiologist explained the situation. I was pretty stressed for that Tuesday night. But once I understood what was going on and that I wasn’t going to die the next day, it was okay.”

Enforced break

Strauss was forced to take a break from rugby after he underwent surgery for the hole in his heart. “I couldn’t play because I was on blood-thinning medication and if I got knocked in the head that could be a problem. It didn’t feel like an injury and it’s not an illness so it felt like a stupid reason. I didn’t feel any different.”

He made a full recovery from the surgery and continued to play for Ireland. In 2015 he became an Irish citizen along with the Irish head coach, Joe Schmidt, who is from New Zealand. Asked why he applied for citizenship, Strauss says the political uncertainty in South Africa was the main push factor. “The big thing in South Africa is the corruption but there are also so many people suffering who don’t have money or electricity. There’s no infrastructure and the schools are falling apart.” Strauss hopes the recent election of former trade unionist and businessman Cyril Ramaphosa as president of South Africa will bring more stability to the country.

“My family has been incredibly lucky, we’ve had no violent crimes happen to us. It’s just that constant uncertainty that something really bad could happen. And the unfortunate thing is once something bad happens it’s probably too late.”

Before leaving South Africa, he lived in a bubble, cut off from the wider world outside his friends and family. “Coming to Ireland opened my eyes to see that there’s a lot more to life than I thought. You go to other countries and see that people live completely differently.”

Despite the instability back home, Strauss would like to return to South Africa. “Ireland is a very easy place to become home and I don’t think the cultural differences are that big between South Africans and Irish people. I can see myself probably living in Ireland at a later time but I want to go back for a few years to be closer to family. I can see my parents getting older and even with Facetime, it’s not the same. I would love to be able to just call my dad, drive over, have a beer and sit together on the farm. That’s my biggest reason for wanting to go back, I don’t want to miss out on those years with my parents.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish