Rudi

Ken Derbyshire brought the magazine back with him when he went to South Africa recently. The picture was taken on 25th May, 1999, when Rudi faced hundreds of supporters and fellow players on the pitch, celebrating the fact that on this day we had avoided relegation.

Is it Love ?Rudi Straeuli

The laugh is deep, dug from the depths of the stomach, and infectious. When Rudolf Straeuli laughs you have to laugh with him. He has that kind of effect. It starts as a chuckle, a kind of an engine being switched on. Be there on the right occasion and the engine always purrs, smooth but primed for a good rev at any given time. But it is not the laugh alone that offers a glimpse of the man’s being. To appreciate his soulfulness, you have to know the story of an English rugby club called Bedford. If you know of Bedford in the professional era, then you will begin to form an understanding of Rudolf Straeuli.

And if you could gauge the bond which exists between the rugby folk of Bedford and Straeuli, then you will accept that Springbok rugby, for all its recent misery and resultant lack of confidence, is in the hands of a good custodian. Stereotype him on perception and hearsay - Straeuli is a disciplinarian: Straeuli rules with the iron fist: Straeuli, to some, is the archetypal boorish Dutchman - or assume you know his personality on the evidence of a televised impression, and the new Bok coach may as well double up over the Christmas period as Santa’s faithful reindeer.

To those who have experienced Straeuli, both as a friend and coach, he is not a one-man band who drums to the beat of fear. Discipline is packaged in his value system. To label him simply a disciplinarian is merely an acknowledgement that you don’t know the story of Bedford and the month in which Rudolf Straeuli wrote his most glorious chapter as a coach and among his finest as a man.

Bedford, battling for survival in the English Premiership, was cash-strapped. They had not won for 15 matches and the man who provided their financial blanket, boxing promoter Frank Warren, had had his assets frozen because of a dispute with Mike Tyson. The players had not been paid their wages for two weeks. Straeuli, the player-coach who had led Bedford into the Premiership after the team made up the numbers in the minor leagues for years, had convinced his players not to go on strike. He had promised them the good times were a try and a conversion away. They played for a fortnight without pay, but during the third week the collective human spirit was buckling under the weight of financial despair.

By the fourth week, Bedford’s bravest were ready to trade it in. Wives, girlfriends and families were pleading for a financial solution and it did not matter whether it meant giving up the game for a factory job. The players had to make a choice.

Straeuli takes up the story. In retelling it, his mind travels. You see it in his eyes. They mist up, quicker than a car windscreen minus defrost ventilation. His expression screams of the toughness of the situation, but at the climax of the tale the same expression bellows of the triumph of the spirit.

"We had absolutely nothing. No money and precious little else materially. He club was operating on a prayer and the bravery of guys who refused to walk away from the situation. Initially, I had managed through the hard times. By the fourth week it was nearly impossible. I had nothing to offer them.

" I didn’t know when the situation would end. The people of the town had rallied behind us. They had brought us food and kept us on the go."

Straeuli falls silent, his mind recreating the change room scene." We were playing Leicester, arguably the strongest team in English club rugby since the start of professionalism. I walked into the changing room. I looked at the players. There was nothing I could say to them. For a month they had played without wages. The promises of cash had amounted to nothing. Team talks were meaningless. Understandably they were under incredible pressure at home.

" I pulled them together in a huddle, looked up an saw Clem Boyd (an Irishman). ‘Clem’, I said " You’re Irish. Sing. Sing us a song. That’s all we’ve got…our spirit, our soul and ourselves. Sing."

That day Clem sang. He sang Danny Boy with every bit he had. Hardened men cried in that huddle. Tears flowed and our spirits soared. We went out there and gave Leicester the game of their lives. Thereafter we won six games on the trot and avoided relegation."

Straeuli sighs, exclaims that anything is possible if you want it badly enough and then chuckles: it resonates a deep satisfaction. He does not say it but the memory is surly among his most cherished. During those turbulent weeks at Bedford, Straeuli was quoted as saying that through all his highs and lows, he had never taken on a task as difficult.