Richardt Strauss’ rapid recovery from heart surgery offers Ireland a “bonus” hooker for the RBS Six Nations, according to head coach Joe Schmidt.
Doctors detected a hole in front-rower Schmidt’s heart in October, and Leinster immediately ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Just three months after a successful operation though he stunned his team-mates and coaches to make a return to provincial rugby.
And on Saturday the 27-year-old played the entire second half to help Ireland Wolfhounds see off England Saxons 14-8 at Kingsholm.
Ireland boss Schmidt hailed Schmidt’s resilience in battling back at least five months ahead of expectation.
“He’s resilient and he’s a little bit of an opportunist,” said Schmidt.
“We had a couple of other hookers in the squad earlier in the season.
“Mike Sherry unfortunately had a knee injury, then Damien Varley was named to come into the squad and he took a bit of a knock as well.
“So it just allowed the door to open for Richardt.
“I have to say, I coached Richardt for a number of years at Leinster, and know the quality of him and it’s fantastic that he is back available.
“I’m delighted for him personally. He’s a great man, and for him to bounce back and be available is a bit of a bonus for us.”
Pretoria-born Strauss progressed through South Africa’s age-group systems before breaking into the Cheetahs squad.
The Irish Rugby Football Union backed Leinster to sign Strauss in 2009, always anticipating the combative hooker qualifying for Ireland through residency.
Strauss made his debut against his native South Africa in November 2012, and has won four Ireland caps.
Schmidt now expects the uncompromising hooker to put pressure on regular senior duo Rory Best and Sean Cronin.
Hailing Strauss’ remarkable recovery as typical of his focus, Schmidt said: “I think that would reflect his character pretty well, it reflects how he plays the game.
“If he gets knocked down he gets back up again and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
Schmidt and fellow Ireland coaches John Plumtree and Les Kiss made the trip to Gloucester to watch the Wolfhounds’ hard-fought victory on Saturday.
The former New Zealand schoolteacher admitted there will be some close selection calls ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Scotland on February 2.
Fit-again wings Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo had scant opportunity to impress over ground sodden by a day-long torrential downpour.
Fergus McFadden offered a solid showing, and remains the favourite to partner Dave Kearney in the Scotland showdown.
But Schmidt admits selection decisions are far from finalised, paving the way for some competitive training sessions this week.
“There are some positions that the majority of people have a fair idea about and there are some positions that have been well documented that are very much wide open.”
“Some tight decisions will exist for the next two weeks, and then we’ll maybe reshuffle the deck and go again, without trying to remix too many things and lose continuity.”
With his first Six Nations less than a week away, Schmidt admitted part of him is raring to go, while another part wants more preparation time.
“I can’t wait, and at the same time I wish it was miles away, you know,” he said.
“I suppose there are a lot of opposite emotions.
“I can’t wait to get started, it’s exciting: these are events, not matches, with all the excitement around.
“The expectation is building, and that’s great to have, along with sold-out grounds and vocal support.
“Hopefully we can meet that expectation, but that lends a bit of weight to it all, and I’m a bit nervous about that.”