AT THE start of the season Glasgow Warriors announced that they had signed an exotic-sounding No.8 from the southern hemisphere, a big beast to carry the game to the opposition in every sense of the phrase. Perhaps now the rugby world would sit up and take notice?
Perhaps not. A few weeks later the Tongan breakaway Viliami Ma’afu quit Glasgow for “personal reasons” and returned home, only to be replaced by a latter-day Moses who has led Glasgow to the promised land otherwise known as the top of the RaboDirect Pro 12. Josh Strauss may not be the prophet himself but he does sport an Old Testament beard which is luxurious enough to be the setting for David Attenborough’s next wildlife series.
The South African Strauss got here in a hurry, a “project player” who will qualify to play for Scotland on the three-year residency rule on 19 September, 2015, a day after the Rugby World Cup kicks off. He arrived with a mixed resume because, after captaining the Golden Lions to Currie Cup victory in 2011, Strauss led the Lions to the bottom of the Super 15 ladder last season and out of the competition altogether because the Jo’berg franchise was controversially replaced by the Port Elisabeth-based Southern Kings. “We lost to South African politics,” says Strauss.
After a difficult period adjusting to his new surroundings, the No.8 has become increasingly impressive, one of the main reasons Glasgow top the league. Three more matches remain in the regular season and if Gregor Townsend’s team can capture home advantage in the play-offs they could become the first Scottish side to win something meaningful in the professional era.
There is clearly a lot at stake, although Strauss has also invested plenty of his own rugby capital in upping sticks and moving halfway across the globe to play for Glasgow. The South African swapped Ellis Park (capacity circa 56,000) for Scotstoun Stadium (capacity circa 50,000 fewer), pitches baked rock hard by the sun for pitches frozen solid by frost and a shot at the Springboks squad in 2015 for the chance to join Scotland’s World Cup campaign. Why?
“After spending a year in France when I was just 20 years old it was always my intention to return to either the UK or Europe to play rugby,” replies Strauss, who obviously suffers a little wanderlust. “Given the circumstances at the Lions after the franchise was relegated out of Super Rugby, it seemed the right thing to do. Gregor Townsend phoned me out of the blue and I had several extensive talks with him on Skype. I liked his enthusiasm and his vision for the club and Graham Lowe, who was then the high-performance director at Scottish Rugby, flew out to see me and my wife. It is always nice to feel wanted and that is what Glasgow did for me.
“When I was growing up in South Africa I always dreamed of becoming a Springbok player just like every other kid. I made the big training squad last summer for the trio of matches against England but I was cut from the smaller squad.
“I am a realistic guy and you can’t put your entire heart or your head on one thing. You can only play your best and hope for the best. The circumstances with the Lions made the move an obvious one, and while many people back home are saying I might have gone too soon I am enjoying [Glasgow], I am enjoying the players and if one day I make the Scotland squad I will be a very proud man but it’s just not my focus right now.”
In many ways Strauss is an atypical South African rugby player. His first year of senior, professional rugby was in France. He lists the irreverent South Park and Family Guy as two of his favourite television shows and he played guitar in various outfits including the punk band Something for Nothing back home. When the Lions were relegated he considered moves to New Zealand (Chiefs and Crusaders) or Ireland (Ulster). If he’s not Old Testament, his “have boots, will travel” attitude is decidedly old school.
With six months of European rugby under his belt, Strauss now admits that the move north was not all plain sailing. Playing back-to-back seasons probably didn’t help but the winter weather in Scotland would test the resolve of Captain Scott, never mind a sun-loving South African who at least had one pleasant surprise in store. “I did struggle with the weather,” admits the breakaway, “because I came from a climate where the lowest temperature in winter might be 8-10 degrees while in Glasgow it was really cold… below zero! Training on a wet field tells on the knees and the calves. I spoke to friends who were playing here and they said that I would get used to it but I should not expect to get off the plane and make the same impact as I did back home.
“I know I should not admit to this, but I was a little bit surprised at the professionalism at Glasgow. Coming from Super Rugby, where we have the feeling that everything is perfect, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the facilities here are world-class. The strength and conditioning was exceptional, the medical staff and everyone involved in the club had such high standards.”
He may have taken time to hit his straps but the best of the big man has proved worth waiting for. At 6’ 5” and almost 18 stones, the South African offers Glasgow exactly what they need, a big ball carrier whose barrelling runs get the team on the front foot. Attacking weapons out wide such as Peter Horne, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland are eager and able to exploit fast go-forward ball. At their best, Glasgow make the game look easy.
Two other factors may just have helped Strauss settle in his adopted land because since signing for Glasgow he returned home in December to marry. He is now joined in Glasgow by the two girls in his life, his new wife, Tami-Lee, and his miniature Doberman Pincher, Della. As he says, he is committed to Glasgow for three years and he isn’t going to do it without his dog or, of course, his new missus.
Della is keeping any thoughts about the move to herself but there are plenty of doubters back home in South Africa who have flooded the rugby message boards with the worry that the Springboks have lost a captain in waiting.
“This was a hard as nails player who at least breaks the gain line almost always AND a great leader to boot,” was posted by Rooibaard2000 on one board, and that was followed up by Blokkies: “This man is an yster (made of steel) and I am very sad to see him go.”
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer admitted last year when asked about the exodus of South African rugby talent: “You would get an unbelievably strong Springboks side just from the players overseas.”
South Africa have a stack of riches to choose from but even their seemingly endless reserve of breakaways must be running low. Saracens’ South African No.8 Ernst Joubert has thrown his lot in with England, while Antoine Classens, son of the former Springbok skipper Wynand, has gone one better and played for France. Juan Smith has retired from the game due to injury and Ryan Kankowski has joined Toyota Verblitz in Japan on a six-month contract. There are plenty of pundits in South Africa who quietly think that Meyer was a little hasty in letting Strauss leave.
“A prophet is not without honour except in his own land,” as the Bible has it, and Glasgow are grateful for that fact.