No Slowing Down…

Chatting trophies and training with Irish rugby legend Peter Stringer

Interview by Andrew Steel

Time, immaterial they say, stands still for no-one – except, perhaps, for Peter Stringer. The legendary Ireland rugby union scrum-half, capped 98 times by his country, has just finished a brief stint with Worcester Warriors in the Aviva Premiership – and despite having turned 40 at the tail-end of last year, he shows no signs of slowing down after playing at the top level of the sport in three decades. As he approaches his 20th anniversary in first-class sport, what, Riddle asks, is the key to his professional longevity?

“I don’t think there’s any secret, really,” he laughs when asked on a mild January afternoon about what drives him on. “For me, I’ve grown up in the game, and I love the game; I’m still very passionate about it.” He pauses to mull it over, before continuing. “I’ve been fortunate to experience some great wins and great moments throughout my career and when you live through those, it makes you hungrier for even more success. Running out on a Friday night or a Saturday in front of thousands of people; that’s not a bad place to be.”

Stringer traces his drive, like many players, back to his formative years playing as an amateur junior, in the mid-1980s. “When you’re first playing underage, you’re just running around chasing a ball with a bunch of your friends. But I always took the training hand-in-hand with the game; I was dedicated to it from day one. You learn all your skills, your attacking and your passing, at this young part of your career, and then you get selected to go out there. As a kid, bringing down the guys who are bigger than you on the field… well, I caught that bug early on.”

As an increased injury list takes its toll on the Aviva Premiership this season, he observes that such issues were likely to be a cause-and-effect of players’ physical changes over the past quarter-century. “There’s an element of luck, no doubt, to avoiding the knocks, but guys are certainly bigger and more physical than when I started in senior rugby. There was a distinct difference between backs and forwards in the game. Nowadays, in the professional era, with guys training twice a day and in the gym elsewhere; it’s a different beast. You’ve got wingers who could play in the second row and props who could play at centre. It was always going to go this way in a full-time environment; you’re just going to keep getting bigger the more that you train.”

Is there anything he would do to try and curb the rise, to cut the risks? “I don’t know, it’s very difficult. I know World Rugby are looking very closely at the high tackle, and I think that’s a huge area that needs to continue being assessed and addressed. But you want to keep that physicality in the game rather than take it away; you don’t want to remove it, because it’s what we’ve all grown up with. If you ask anyone who plays this game, they wouldn’t trade that away for anything.”

With the NatWest 6 Nations imminent, Stringer is looking forward to catching what he feels will be one of the closest tournaments in recent years now that he is currently away from the playing field himself. “It’s so hard to call this sort of thing! Over the last few years, you’re looking at England and Ireland. But Wales have a chance – their domestic sides like Scarlets are doing great – and Scotland had a great autumn series last year. They’re always going to upset a team or two along the way.” If he was pressed for a winner? “I think it’ll come down to that final game at Twickenham, when Ireland visit. I’d say England are the slight favourites, but anything can happen on the day; I wouldn’t put it past Ireland to win a 6 Nations title again.”

What are his thoughts on the potential for a promotion-relegation system to be introduced in the tournament, after Italy’s sub-par showings? “You don’t want to see a yo-yo system, where teams are coming up and down all the time; it’d be nice to keep the consistency. But Italy haven’t really stepped up to the plate either. They’ve been in the 6 Nations as long as I’ve been an international player, and they haven’t progressed in the way you’d hope. Conor O’Shea’s over there now, and I think he’ll make a big difference. I’d like to give him an opportunity to see what he can do in the next two years and then I think you reassess and see who could join the competition. There’s a lot of sides knocking at the door who would love to get in.”

Though he is still mulling over unspecified offers to play for the coming year, Stringer’s on-field calling is very much in its twilight phase. What, then, does he take away as the highlights of an illustrious career? “Winning your first cap for your country is obviously very special. I sat on the bench against England in 2000 and never got on the field, but then made my debut at home against Scotland the following week. It’s a moment and a feeling I’ll never forget. Winning the Heineken Cup in 2006 with Munster in Cardiff was another. And then Cardiff again, three years later, when we won the Grand Slam in 2009 against Wales with the last kick of the game. That was the first time we’d done it for 60 years; that’s going to stay with me forever.” Anyone he wished he could have played with? “Dan Carter, hands down. The best fly-half in world rugby for a generation; to have played alongside him would have been an honour.”

And what of the future? Stringer has other responsibilities on his plate right now. “My wife and I had our first child last year, so at the moment my life is immediately concerned with this ten-month-old baby. I think, long-term, it’s given me an opportunity to sit back and take it all in, to think of what comes next. I’ve got a few business ideas; I’ve always been very much invested in the health and nutrition side of elite sports, given I’ve lived by it for 20 years, and I have a real passion for it.” He whistles lowly. “It’s about enjoying whatever I do. Rugby has been my life for so long; whenever I do finish, it’ll be about trying to replace that with something else that I love equally every single day. Otherwise… I might just keep on playing forever!” riddle_stop 2

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