Iain Morrison: Loyalties clear for Josh Strauss

There is a photograph somewhere with Scotland flanker Josh Strauss sitting on a bench right next to the South African coach Heyneke Meyer. It was taken a little over three years ago when the bearded one was part of a wider Springboks training squad. He failed to make the cut and, shortly after, moved to Glasgow to throw in his lot with Scotland.

You play for the guy next to you says Glasgows Josh Strauss. Picture: Getty Images
You play for the guy next to you says Glasgows Josh Strauss. Picture: Getty Images
You play for the guy next to you says Glasgows Josh Strauss. Picture: Getty Images

Strauss denies that being rejected by the Boks caused him to jump ship. He might even be telling the truth because the South African club that he captained, the Golden Lions, lost their Super Rugby franchise that season and he was left scratching around for a new start in life. He got one.

Now decked in the blue of Scotland with a huge game against the land of his birth looming, what competing emotions are cavorting about his brain right now?

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“I haven’t thought about the emotions,” Strauss insists. “It’ll be no different than playing any other game. I was far more emotional playing my first Test. I haven’t thought too much about it but I don’t see it being any different than just playing in a very big game.

“It won’t be any different other than playing one of the best teams in the world. That’s what they are and they’ve been there for all of those years so it’s a massive match.

“Everything in life happens for a reason, I’m a firm believer in that. I’ve loved my time in Scotland and everyone has been great. I’ve been really proud of the things I’ve achieved and I wouldn’t wish it any other way.”

It is difficult to imagine two cultures with less in common than white Johannesburg and Glasgow but then again Strauss never was your typical South African. Rather than a Bible bashing Christian he would rather thrash his guitar in a jam session, specialising in music he describes as “punk and metal”. Ahead of this World Cup he was asked the best thing about Glasgow and his reply, “the banter”, suggests that he has thrown himself into life in his adopted homeland with something like relish.

He certainly does not look like a man who harbours too many regrets about the decision to move halfway around the world, even if Glasgow’s renown as a centre of rugby excellence is a work in progress.

“When I came to Glasgow, the rugby side was quite small,” says that man who helped the Warriors lift the Pro12 title last season. “People would ask me: ‘Where are you from, why are you here?’

“That has changed in the last couple of years. Now I get people stopping me in the streets, people saying congratulations, stopping me in shops. It’s tough to compare the rugby cultures of two very different nations. But it is getting there in Glasgow and Scotland.”

He didn’t play with any of the Springboks squad while in South Africa but Strauss banged heads against a good few of them and it turns out that Schalk Burger was a friend of a friend so the two blindside breakaways, who go head to head tomorrow, are pretty pally off the field.

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“We’ve obviously played against each other quite a few times and been to different functions, things like that,” says Strauss. “Schalk is a great guy and he actually went to school with my cousin, so I got to know him quite well over the years. He is always very warm and welcoming. Whenever we played down in Cape Town, he always went out of his way to make sure I felt comfortable, came and had a chat. I don’t think he will be doing that on Saturday, nice guy or not!”

While you might not agree with World Rugby’s three-year residency rule, which will almost certainly be reviewed after this tournament is done and dusted, all the talk of nations and nationality hides one important truth: players play for each other every bit as much as taking up arms for their nation, wife or sweetheart, as Strauss confirms.

“I think it’s probably said a lot, to the extent that it’s devalued, but you become really close to the guys you play with. And although it sounds a bit of a cliché to say they become your family, that is the case.

“We’re together for massive chunks of time and, especially in a tournament like this, you are in a confined space for four weeks. There is almost never any friction, everyone gets along well.

“You play for the guy next to you. I can’t compare it to going to war but, I mean, you are all soldiers in a way. So you play for each other because you are brothers in arms.”

Which is why the Afrikaans-speaking South African Josh Strauss, turning out against the land of his birth and upbringing, will be putting heart, body and soul into 
Scotland’s cause tomorrow afternoon.