Interview: Flanker Alasdair Strokosch on earning respect and building on positive momentum

In the bank: Alasdair Strokosch is pictured in the St Andrews Square RBS branch ahead of the New Zealand game. Picture: Jane Barlow
In the bank: Alasdair Strokosch is pictured in the St Andrews Square RBS branch ahead of the New Zealand game. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ALASDAIR Strokosch is behind the wheel of the Scotland kit van, a blacked-out windowed job normally reserved for the ferrying about of the paraphernalia of the national team but leant to him today to run his errands, to do this interview and then motor on to East Kilbride to see his folks before spinning back to Edinburgh for plotting and planning in Andy Robinson’s inner-sanctum ahead of the All Blacks.

He’s in a strange vehicle in a strange city. Didn’t use to be that way, of course, but Edinburgh’s changed since Strokosch last drove these streets. Can’t go up this way, can’t go up that way, blocked off up there, shut down over there. He’s driving and wondering at the same time if there’s actually any place to park here anymore. Stress? He’d sooner face an All Black scrum.

But he’s here and he’s talking and there’s a touch of déjà vu about what he is saying, at least in the business of where Scotland is at as a team right now. Before the start of this season’s Six Nations, Strokosch made some big statements about the state of the nation. With his shaved head and his tattoos and his ferocity on the rugby field, Strokosch might look like the type guy who would regularly come out with bold and controversial comments, but he’s not. He’s actually quiet and shy. He says Robinson is forever trying to get him to talk more but it’s not really his way. He’s trying, but dominating a place with his chat is not his thing and never will be.

So when, at the start of the year, he said that Scotland’s failure to meet expectations was not just frustrating, but embarrassing, it made some headlines. He was embarrassed by the team’s many false dawns, he said. The inconsistency did his big bald head in. And now? “It’s still true. To say you’re embarrassed is strong stuff, but it’s true. It’s fine being positive all the time but at some stage you have to be realistic. You can’t keep beating the same drum, saying we’re on the cusp of being brilliant only to make a mess of it again. A lot of the things that have gone on in the past have been frustrating and embarrassing.

“The most frustrating thing is we always put ourselves in the position where we’ve built a bit of momentum, like right now from the summer tour heading into a big autumn series, and then we get back together and it goes back to square one again and you have to start building over and over and over. Since I was involved we had a good tour of Argentina when we won one and should have won two, then we went back to Argentina and we won both, then we came back home and we underperformed again.

“We beat South Africa one autumn and then we didn’t deliver in the Six Nations, then we had optimism going into the World Cup, thinking we could finish first in the group, and we finished third.”

He calls it a frustrating cycle, but it’s more than that. He’s sure that Scotland have the ability to win more matches. They’ve shown it often enough for goodness sake. So what’s the problem? “It can only be mental. It’s certainly not physical. We measure that stuff and we’re pretty much up there with everybody else. It has to be mental, but I don’t know what it would take to make the change.” Scotland have tried – and continue to try – using a psychologist but Strokosch doesn’t go in for that kind of thing.

What are they going to say? “Be positive. Believe in yourself. You must think you can win”? Yeah, right. What he would like to know is how Scotland can lose five out of five in the spring and then win three out of three in the summer, why this rollercoaster keeps on rolling instead of levelling off into some kind of steady progress instead of constant turbulence and doubt.

The summer tour. Australia. A war in a monsoon where forwards are everything and backs are nothing. Typical Scotland, having bombed in the Six Nations, they only go and beat one of the world’s leading teams in their own backyard. Beat them on the scoreboard, beat them physically and mentally and every way you care to mention. “It was one of those games where whoever makes least mistakes wins due to the conditions. You could tell from the start that the Australians just wanted to get the game finished and get back in the changing room. They were thinking ‘It’s only Scotland, we’ll get past this and we’ll play the Welsh next week’. There’s only one way to earn respect in rugby and that’s to beat teams like that. It was my type of game.

“The weather played into my hands. It was a night where you gotta hit rucks, gotta hit tackles, gotta be destructive at the breakdown, gotta make it a mess. We defended well. A lot of our attack wasn’t particularly accurate, but defensively we were excellent and we’re going to have to be even better against New Zealand because their attack is just phenomenal.

“If you defend well in sport you’ve always got a chance no matter who you’re playing. Thinking about New Zealand, we can take inspiration from what Celtic did against Barcelona. Nobody thinks we’re going to win but nobody thought Celtic were going to win either. It just shows that if you defend well and you’re right in the head, anything is possible.”

Robinson singled out Strokosch for praise after the summer tour, a fact that pleased the flanker after six years of what he calls “doing the hokey cokey” in terms of being in and out of the Scotland team. This is the first time he’ll face the New Zealanders at senior level, so it’s a milestone in his career, a Test to beat all Tests.

In the airspace around him this week he’s heard some chat about a New Zealand journalist trying to belittle the Scots with talk of how useless they have been for the longest time when facing the All Blacks. In one ear and out the other. He wishes that the New Zealand players themselves, rather than their scribblers, would be so dismissive of Scotland but knows in his heart that it won’t be the case. That’s one of the things that makes the Kiwis so great, he says.

“They respect everyone they play against. You can see that every time. Respect is a key part of the culture of the game we play and the All Blacks know that as well as anyone. They respect every team. You very rarely, if ever, see New Zealand take a team lightly. They go for it always. It’s not just a respect for the opposition it’s a respect for themselves and what they’re playing for, respect for their jersey and what it represents. It’s going to be a full house at Murrayfield, so the occasion is going to be great as long as we give the fans something to shout about. The closer the score is, the louder it gets. I know that having beaten England at Murrayfield before. That was another time when nobody gave us a chance. It seems to happen that way; we get ourselves in such a deep hole that nobody expects anything and then suddenly a big performance comes.”

It would need to be the performance of a lifetime to run these All Blacks close, not to mind beat them, but that’s the challenge and Strokosch is ready to meet it. On his back he has a tattoo in Latin, some fighting words that can be loosely translated into “Don’t attack me unless you want a war.” A fitting message for the day.

“I think if I’m going to get a tattoo it’s got to mean something to me and it’s quite a nice way of saying that I won’t be taken for granted, a nice reminder of how to live your life. If you’re going to have these things written on you then you’ve got to live up to them. On my back I have ‘Scotland Forever’ written in Gaelic. I got it when I was 21. A bit cheesy, maybe, but I like it.”

You ask if there is any doubt in his mind about today, any fear, any insecurity? “No,” he says, with a studied intensity that tells you he is ready for whatever mayhem is to come.