WALTZING into Scotland team is far from his mind as he concentrates on here and now, finds Iain Morrison
GLASGOW Warriors finished the 2011-12 season in fourth place in the Pro 12 pecking order. One year later they improved their position one place to third. The end of last season saw Gregor Townsend’s team finish in second place and the Warriors’ growing band of followers will be keeping their fingers crossed that the sporting gods are lovers of logical progression.
The club starts this season the exact way they finished off last, with a match against the blue-bloods from Leinster. The Dubliners will be without their Irish internationals but still they won’t roll over and have their tummy tickled for anyone. It is a match that the Glasgow boys are looking forward to, if their South African No.8 is to be believed.
“We’ve had a really good pre-season,” says the man with the Brian Blessed beard and the baritone of Barry White. “Coming off a disappointing defeat against Leinster and playing them in the first game, it’s still fairly fresh in the minds of our players.
“We’ve worked hard with the motivation that we’re playing Leinster here in the first week and obviously it’s a big game, it’s a good one to start off with and hopefully we’ll have some momentum going into the game.”
For perfectly good reasons Townsend has not made a raft of signings – if it isn’t broken etc – but also because he has spent much of the club’s budget on keeping his core group of players together.
There are just six new faces at Glasgow, one of whom, Canadian Connor Braid, is on an interim deal, with the twin tightheads Euan Murray and Rossouw de Klerk probably the highest-profile incomers.
Townsend is not shy about trumpeting his club’s goals – it is to win the Guinness Pro 12 and end the sorry run of failure by Scottish pro-teams in the professional era. Which begs an obvious question… why should what is essentially the same group of players enjoy a different outcome to last season?
“I think if you look at the progress that we made, I am only talking about my experience,” insists Josh Strauss. “The progress that we made from my first season when we made the semi-final to the way we played in the second season here when we finished second and made the final, the team is growing a lot.
“There is a lot of young talent, the way guys like Finn Russell and Adam Ashe, who played his first international against South Africa a little while ago, and Kevin Bryce, there are a lot of those guys coming through.
“I think the club has a core group of guys, be they young or old, that they have a chance to work with over a period of a few years and the team is growing.
“There are a few new signings, a few new faces, but obviously there is a lot of trust in the faces that are already here to grow on last season and build on it.”
Russell was the stand-off who started the season with Ayr and finished it with two starts for Scotland against the USA and Canada. It is one of the bizarre truths of Scottish rugby that players now get capped for their country with almost no club experience.
It is almost as if the national selectors are giving a none-too-subtle nudge to the Glasgow coaches. It happened in the summer of 2013 when Fraser Brown came off the bench against South Africa, and it happened this summer to Kevin Bryce and Ashe, who started against South Africa in June but only made his first start for Glasgow yesterday in West London.
“There is a lot of young talent [at Glasgow],” the South African confirms. “Adam Ashe is an exceptional player, especially for his age. He’s a big guy, a big No.8, Scotland needs more players like him.”
Of course Scotland are going to get one more player just like Ashe and he arrives on September 19, 2015 to be exact. It is, of course, Strauss himself who will qualify for Scotland one day after RWC15 kicks off and four days before Scotland open their account against Japan in Gloucester’s Kingsholm ground.
WP Nel is another South African who will be eligible in time, but will the Scottish rugby public turn their backs on a team staffed, or at least stiffened, by foreigners or will the fans care little for the exact composition of the Scotland squad if the results come good? It is a tricky question but credit to the South African for doing his level best to answer it.
“That’s quite a tough question,” says Strauss. “It’s tough for me to answer, being an outsider. Getting the opportunity to do it… if there wasn’t that type of opportunity obviously there wouldn’t be any of these questions.
“Players like me and WP Nel, who you mentioned, coming over to Scotland. Obviously if we get the chance to do it, the opportunity to do it, it’s great. It’s something you strive to do as a rugby player, play at the highest level, play at the highest level you can perform at.
“I can’t really ask the Scottish public. Obviously if they accept us then that’s great. It’s tough to answer if it’s good for Scottish rugby in the long term, it’s not my place to say, but if they feel we can make a difference then we will try our best to do it.”
Scotland, of course, play South Africa in the World Cup and he wouldn’t be human if Strauss wasn’t thinking of showing those who spurned him just what they missed. Whatever happens next September, the big breakaway is staying in the here and now, focusing on Glasgow’s upcoming league season and with good reason.
The Warriors went painfully close to glory last season and they will surely be highly competitive once again, with competition for places across the board.
Al Kellock captains the team for the ninth successive season but, against all available evidence, the big man won’t go on forever and Townsend perhaps offered a hint to his future thinking by making Strauss skipper against Harlequins.
“Obviously you have a lot of leaders in the club and big Al Kellock is club captain,” says Strauss. “I am comfortable doing it. I think it’s like anything else, the more experience you have doing it the better you get at it.
“The guys in the club make my job so easy, guys like Chris Fusaro and Henry Pyrgos [yesterday’s captain] and Jonny Gray – as young as he is, he’s a great leader on the field – everyone does their bit to lead the team.”
If Strauss does take over the captaincy from “Big Al” at some unspecified point in the future, you have to fancy that the sporting gods would approve the logical progression.