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Red and black and black and blue

Tom Vinicombe

Exclusive free article from The XV

In September last year, Quinten Strange thought he’d finally put a long spell of injuries behind him when he earned a maiden call-up to the All Blacks.

It wasn’t to be, with a sprained ankle forcing him out of the New Zealand national squad. Instead of letting the injury be a bump in the road, however, Strange has used it a motivator to put his best foot forward with the Crusaders and has signed on with the Super Rugby franchise for the next three campaigns.

While Strange thankfully hasn’t had to deal with any major injuries throughout his developing professional career, a string of minor setbacks, almost one after the other, curtailed much of 2020.

“I had a fractured rib from [the 2019] Mitre 10 Cup then I hurt my shoulder in the Super Rugby pre-season and then first game back from that, I broke my hand,” Strange told The XV.

“Then it was my shoulder [a solid hit from a Highlanders player caused some significant damage] and this collarbone thing that had been floating around since the backend of lockdown. It wasn’t a great year.

“It was really frustrating, especially because they weren’t massive injuries. It was six weeks here, six weeks there. It wasn’t a big six-monther – which was obviously good, but it was just little things that were just setting me back and it was really frustrating.”

Despite limited involvement in Super Rugby, Quinten Strange was called into the All Blacks for their 2020 international season. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

While Strange knew that the All Blacks were on the look-out for second-rowers, he had no expectations that a call-up was on the cards, given the limited minutes he’d chalked up throughout the season.

An experienced, proven All Black might be able to avoid the selection axe following a condensed season, but what chance was there for a then-23-year-old newbie to fight his way into the squad on the back of just five Super Rugby appearances?

In a twist that not even Strange would have expected in his wildest dreams, the call-up did come – illustrating how highly the selectors regard the up-and-coming lock.

“I didn’t really have any conversations throughout the year with the coaches and selectors as such,” Strange said. “I actually found out that I had made the team just by watching the announcement on TV, like everyone else in the country.

While Strange knew that the All Blacks were on the look-out for second-rowers, he had no expectations that a call-up was on the cards, given the limited minutes he’d chalked up throughout the season.

“It was a huge surprise. There were always people saying, ‘There are no locks this year, there’s an opportunity there,’ and stuff like that, but I never really thought with the year that I’d had that I’d done enough.”

At that stage, in late September, the frustrations from throughout the year faded away. Disrupted season or not, Strange had made the All Blacks.

Unfortunately for the promising second-rower, he’d not seen the end of his bad run of luck. An ankle sprain with a six-to-eight-week prognosis suffered at the second All Blacks training camp forced the selectors to replace Strange in the squad – with Crusaders teammate Mitch Dunshea named as his substitute.

“I got through the first one fine, which was only about three days,” Strange said. “It was about halfway through the second one in Hamilton and it was right at the start of training, I barely got through anything.

“It was tough, I just didn’t understand it really. Like, what I could have done so wrong to get all these different injuries. I don’t know, in a sense, it might not have been the right time for me to be there.”

With the frustrations of an injury-ridden season behind him, Strange quickly started to go about his work with the Tasman Mako. (Photo by Evan Barnes/Getty Images)

Strange worked hard on his rehab and recovered quicker than anticipated, which meant he was able to take the field for Tasman in the Mitre 10 Cup at the end of October, but by then the All Blacks were halfway through the international season and had set up shop in Australia.

It didn’t make sense for the unlucky youngster to join the team at that late stage – the quarantine protocols in place due to COVID-19 obviously didn’t help – and Strange was instead tasked with building up his confidence and his match fitness with the Mako.

The first few All Blacks matches weren’t always easy viewing for the jilted lock – particularly once he was back up and running at full fitness.

“It was tough. Especially watching those ones in New Zealand – because I’d kind of be thinking, ‘Oh, I could have been there’. It was a weird feeling, I felt pretty left out, pretty gutted – but I had a good crew around me in Nelson with Tasman and some good mates who just took my mind off things and I was able to get back on the horse, so it was good.”

“It was pretty frustrating not being able to re-join the group but at the same time, there was another team that I cared so deeply about that I was able to link back up with and I was just glad that the Tassy boys had done the work to put us in a play-off position early in the year and I was able to jump on the train and add value where I could.”

With the likes of Pari Pari Parkinson, Antonio Shalfoon and Max Hicks all sidelined at various stages, Strange was a much-needed addition to the Tasman engine room and the Mako went on to record a second provincial title on the trot. It may not have been an All Blacks campaign, but it was still a “bloody satisfying” way to round out the year.

“It was tough. Especially watching those ones in New Zealand – because I’d kind of be thinking, ‘Oh, I could have been there’. It was a weird feeling, I felt pretty left out.

Quinten Strange

Now, ahead of the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season, Strange has put pen to paper for the Crusaders, extending his contract until 2023, and is hungry to again put his name forward for higher honours – even if that means bottling his desire to push himself on and off the field, lest another injury strikes.

“The motivation is always there but I think this year I’ve pegged it back a bit in terms of just focusing on a few things in my game,” Strange said. “I haven’t gone out trying to do everything too quick. I’m just trying to work on those little things and I think that’s helped me a lot as well.

“If you focus on one week at a time and playing well for your province and your club, things will happen. But if you worry about selection and that too early, you lose focus on where you need to be.”

Strange will likely square off with the Highlanders at the end of the month – the Super Rugby side that caused him so much injury grief last year. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Like any aspiring rugby professional, Strange had to weigh up whether sticking with the Crusaders – a team bursting at the seams with talent – would present the best opportunities for advancement.

With Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Luke Romano and Dunshea all on the books, there’ll always be pressure to earn or retain a spot in the match-day 23 – but Strange didn’t spend long ruminating over the possibilities.

“I guess there was always the thought that with those guys around, I might get more game time or there could be better playing opportunities elsewhere,” Strange admitted. “But it came down to where I wanted to be and where I want to go in my career and I think for me, right now, it’s best for me to stay with the Crusaders. If I can play in this forward pack then I’m ticking a lot of boxes and it’s doing something I always wanted to do.

“It was a pretty special thing to be offered that opportunity [to represent the Crusaders] again – I was pretty happy to sign on the dotted line.

“That’s healthy for the team as well, no one puts their egos ahead of the team and it builds our culture and makes us better. Everyone trusts everyone.

I guess there was always the thought that with those guys around, I might get more game time or there could be better playing opportunities elsewhere.

Strange on the competition he faces in the second row at the Crusaders

Given what Strange was able to accomplish last year with just five Super Rugby appearances to his name, who know what could be on the cards for 2021?

The first goal, of course, is just getting on to the park for the Crusaders.

“If you can crack that starting XV, it’s pretty satisfying in its own manner. It’s such a highly sought-after position and it makes for good healthy competition. All the boys are eager to play but they’re also eager for the team to win. It’ll be tough but I’m looking forward to it.”

With a solid run of injury-free games for the Crusaders, there’s no doubt that higher honours will sort themselves out.

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