THERE is a sense that Glasgow are coming together at the perfect time for an historic push on the RaboDirect PRO12 title, and it is typified by their South African recruit Josh Strauss.
The beard that made him a cult figure in the Super 15 with the Lions is back in full bloom, his body and mind are getting used to the vagaries of a Scottish winter that doesn’t let up and his fitness levels are now where he and the Glasgow coaching staff would want them to be to enable him to make maximum impact off the back of scrums.
As Glasgow prepare for a run of five games that will determine whether their hopes of bringing a first Celtic title back to Scotland are real, or not, his presence in a strong squad is generating optimism.
Strauss was targeted by Glasgow’s new head coach, Gregor Townsend, and Graham Lowe, the SRU’s former director of rugby, as part of a long-time campaign to uncover the kind of big-boned ball-carriers that this country does not produce in great numbers.
With the accent in modern rugby being less on flair in beating men one-on-one, space having disappeared as body shapes grow and defensive structure becomes a scientific process, the main route to momentum is an old one, through big men who can batter through defences, and set players on their heels.
The lack of those power players in Scottish jerseys has been at the heart of the struggle to compete internationally. Scottish teams have produced talented ball-players and grafters, but often had to resort to kicking over defences and round them and staying in games with goal-kicking, while casting envious glances at opponents with a plethora of ball-carrying threats.
So it is no wonder that Glasgow supporters have taken 26-year-old Strauss to their heart, with his charging runs and dynamite hits, nor that he is a player the SRU hope will follow Tim Visser and become Scottish-qualified after three years living here. Understandably, the back-rower is less keen to talk about scenarios in 2015, aware of all the hurdles he must overcome before then, and more focused on how he might help his Glasgow teammates take the next step from challengers to champions.
“It has been great coming to Scotland and I’m enjoying it, and glad I came,” he said, smiling, “now that I’m getting used to this weather.
“Being a good friend of Sean Maitland, I know that he has enjoyed it [playing for Scotland] immensely, and he has only had good things to say. Watching Scotland do well, as they did this season, has really excited me. It’s a long way down the road, but if it ever happens I’ll be really excited about playing for Scotland.
“But, my focus is on Glasgow. In the few weeks when the Scotland guys were playing the Six Nations, we showed that we have great depth at the club. We have done really well and getting those guys back complements the rest of the players. We’ve had a week off and it is good for the body to have a rest, but now we need to push on.
“We’re playing a lot of very good teams in the competition, top-of-the-table sides. Leinster have been brilliant the past few years, especially in Europe. They are unbeaten at home in the Rabo this season, and that’s exceptional and shows how good they are at home.
“For us to keep our form going we really have to focus this week. This could be a big changing point of the season if we get this one this weekend.”
As expected, Leinster have named a side missing a core of famous faces with Test players Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip all out through injury, suspension or being rested. However, with Gordon D’Arcy back, Fijian star Isa Nacewa at full-back, Ian Madigan and Isaac Boss at half-back and Heinke van der Merwe, Sean Cronin, Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings providing solid Test spine in the pack, victory tonight will be more difficult than that achieved by Glasgow against an even more under-strength Leinster side during the World Cup last season.
With play-off places now on offer, and the knowledge that this game and next week’s against Ulster, could determine whether Leinster have a home semi-final or not, a packed 16,000 RDS Showground will expect a home win tonight.
But Strauss’s presence in the Warriors underlines how the strength has grown in the Scottish teams this season, all with a clear goal: to enable Scottish sides to contest for silverware. When Strauss first pitched up, there were concerns that he might keep out talented young Scots, but it is a key balance.
Ryan Wilson and Rob Harley are proof that players can develop alongside the newcomers while Strauss’ form, and that of Fijian scrum-half Niko Matawalu, has underlined that good signings are welcome signings, the pair playing key roles in propelling the Warriors into title contention. The South African’s experience of competing for honours could also be vital in keeping them there.
Glasgow are pulling together a blend that Edinburgh are still yearning for, but it is now, as the pressure rises, that we will discover whether it has the potential to go that extra yard and turn recent promise into champion status.