He was a Springbok who achieved cult status in his time playing for Leeds Tykes. Now he is a kicking guru for hire. Dave Craven spoke to Braam van Straaten.
IT would seem implausible for anyone who saw him in action but Braam van Straaten claims, almost a decade after retiring, he can now kick a ball even further.
The South African’s feats in that field were legendary as a player, his metronomic quality and sheer distance generated often leaving Leeds Tykes fans agog during his prolific spell at Headingley between 2001 and 2003.
Now aged 43, he gives kicking masterclasses, often online but, strangely, not for a Springboks side he represented 21 times.
Instead, the Australia national team are one of his previous clients while he also returned to the Broad Acres last year to take some sessions with Yorkshire Carnegie and Leeds Rhinos.
“It is incredible,” van Straaten told The Yorkshire Post.
“These days I kick the ball even further and straighter than when I was playing as I actually understand now where the power comes from.
“When the youngsters learn the art of getting extension on strike – getting 30 per cent more power and accuracy – that’s where I want them to go. As soon as they feel that you can see the smiles on their faces. It makes a massive difference.
“When I played for Leeds there was a kick at Quins of around 61 or 62 metres and another at Leicester from about 60. But now I can be a lot straighter than when younger and can kick 63 to 65m at altitude, a little less at sea level, probably 58m.”
In the unforgiving world of Test rugby, where not just place kicking but all variations of that skill are put under such fierce examination, the talent is priceless.
Today, England and South Africa will do battle at Twickenham in the second week of the Autumn Internationals, a contest that obviously evokes rich memories for van Straaten, given the last of those 21 Test appearances for the Springboks came in this afternoon’s fixture back in 2001.
He was powerless then, however, as another legendary kicker – Jonny Wilkinson – slotted seven penalties compared to his three in a 29-9 defeat.
Just two years later, Wilkinson landed his most famous kick of all and van Straaten conceded: “We lost that day quite convincingly. England were on a bit of a roll and had that incredible team that went on to win the World Cup in 2003. It was an awesome side and I remember it like yesterday.
“I knew then I was leaving for Leeds. I had a really good stint in South Africa but had to make a decision for my future. If I think back I might have made a different one but at that stage I thought it was the best decision to make. But, again, I did have an awesome time at Leeds. That was perhaps the best I’d ever played. I was in the peak of my career and really, really enjoyed it.”
Van Straaten, meanwhile, admits being confused by South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer’s decision to make five changes to the side that suffered a shock 29-15 loss to Ireland a week ago.
Among them fly-half Pat Lambie replaces Handre Pollard but Meyer insists they were pre-planned and not a reaction to that loss.
“I was surprised by the defeat in Dublin,” added van Straaten, who, as a fearsome defender, was just as adept at inside centre as his preferred No 10 role.
“I thought they’d really be up for it especially after beating the All Blacks in Johannesburg in our last Test. It was a real surprise the way they lost, too, with all those mistakes. It wasn’t good. I think they’ll bounce back Saturday. They have shown under Meyer they have a strong character.
“I’d love to have seen Pollard get another chance, though. Him and Lambie are two very talented guys. I thought Pollard played really well against the All Blacks and to leave him out after the first game on tour I don’t think that’s the right idea.
“It doesn’t send the right message to youngsters about getting a fair chance. I’m not 100 per cent sure why he’s made so many changes. But Lambie has got experience of playing in the UK before and had a great game last time against the English so it’ll be really interesting to see how he goes. England, though, will be keen to get a victory and they want the scalp of a southern hemisphere side in the year before the World Cup.
“After losing to New Zealand last week, this is intriguing.”
Van Straaten is a fan of England’s current No 10 Owen Farrell.
“They’ve a lot of youngsters coming through but I’d like to see Farrell make that berth his own,” he said. “He’s a real quality player. Against the All Blacks everyone is under a little bit more pressure as you have less time against those guys but it will be a good test for him now to see how he goes. He’s a very talented youngster, very mature for his age and his kicking could make a big difference against South Africa.”
Van Straaten was Leeds’ biggest signing at the point he quit the ‘Boks and Western Province to join in December 2001. He quickly made his mark and, though his arrival was too late to prevent them finishing bottom, his influence – either from No10 or No12 – was clear for all to see in the following campaign as Leeds enjoyed their best-ever Premiership finish of fifth, securing a maiden appearance in Europe’s prestigious Heineken Cup.
He was ever-present in the league and scored in every game finishing the season as their top points scorer with 252.
Van Straaten, whose nine penalties against London Irish in September 2002 is still a joint club record, left for Sale Sharks at the end of that season but a knee injury soon curtailed his career in England and he returned home.
“We had a brilliant start to the 2002 season when we won back-to-back against Leicester and London Irish, and we won away a couple of times, too,” he recalled. “It was a really, really good time for me in that Leeds fraternity.
“We made some very good signings like George Harder, Gordon Ross and Diego Albanese and were a really, really fit, hard-working team that gelled under Phil Davies.
“I’m still in touch with them. I’m big friends with Rob Rawlinson, spoke to Mike Shelley out in Canada a couple of months ago, I follow Tom Palmer on Twitter and the other night had a Facebook message from Phil Davies.”
And current England coach Stuart Lancaster, of course, had just been put in charge of the Leeds/RFU Academy in 2001.
Van Straaten admitted: “Lanny’s always been a very knowledgeable, hard-working guy. The biggest thing I remember was his man-management being exceptional. He knows and understands what players like and how to get them tight, together.
“He’s going to make a great success and I really do hope he wins the Six Nations or maybe, with a bit of luck, even the World Cup next year. I’m made up for him.”