From Bok to Jock: Glasgow’s new South African has Scotland cap in sights for 2015

FEW things in life are certain, but any betting man would surely be happy to wager large amounts on two racing certainties when it comes to new Glasgow signing Josh Strauss.

The first is that the 25-year-old whose WG Grace-style beard earned him cult status in South Africa will comfortably win the annual Movember competition among players in Scotland for the most outrageous sprouting of facial fuzz. The second is that the No.8 has arrived in Scotland with more than Glasgow on his mind.

Although the big South African initially denied that he was one of the “project players” so beloved of England and Australia, Kevin de Klerk, the president of the Golden Lions, the outfit which Strauss captained to Currie Cup glory, helpfully let the cat out of the bag last week. Strauss, he revealed, had been released from his contract because “of his request to further his international career with Scotland and also receive a three-year contract that would then make him eligible to earn his citizenship as well to then participate in the next World Cup for Scotland”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

If De Klerk’s indiscreet chat and the timing of Strauss’s signing to replace Tongan Viliame Ma’afu was enough to raise the same suspicions which surround tighthead prop WP Nell – Strauss signed on 11 September and so will become eligible for Scotland exactly one week before the 2015 World Cup kicks off – then the South African was doing little to dampen speculation.

“Who knows what will happen three years from now? That’s really too far in the future to say anything with any certainty, and for now I really want to focus on Glasgow and doing my part for the team,” he said. “But if something like that [playing for Scotland in the World Cup] does come my way down the line then I’ll be really lucky and it’ll be a great experience for me. Getting an opportunity to play in the World Cup is every rugby player’s dream so if that could be the case in three years I’d be very lucky and blessed to achieve that.”

Wanting to play for Scotland in the World Cup is one thing, but achieving that end is quite another, particularly with incumbent David Denton barring his way. Yet yesterday against the Cardiff Blues, Strauss took another step towards consolidating his place in the Glasgow side after he made his debut against Zebre in the unexpectedly close 22-19 home win against the Italian debutants. But his education in Northern Hemisphere rugby steps up another notch next Sunday when Glasgow travel to Franklin’s Gardens to take on Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup before entertaining last year’s beaten finalists Ulster, who beat Glasgow 18-10 at Ravenhill last month, at Scotstoun five days later. Castres make up the final team in the pool.

“I had two stints in France when I was younger, one for a full season [with junior side Lons-le-Saunier] and one for an exchange and I enjoyed both of them,” said Strauss. “I loved Europe and the style of rugby; the whole experience. It was always a plan of mine to come back but then things really took off for me in South Africa, which was a big surprise really. I was going from level to level, ending up in Super Rugby, but at the back of my mind there was always this dream to come back to Europe, so when the Lions fell out of Super Rugby and Glasgow came my way I was really interested.

“Being from the Southern Hemisphere we only really get some Heineken Cup games – plus the odd premiership game and Top 14 games – and it’s a very intriguing game for players in South Africa, and it’s what we see as the biggest stage in European rugby outside the international stage, so it’s great honour to get to play in it. It’s also the sort of experience I want to have while I’m here, and it’ll be a chance for me to show what I can bring to the team that’s new, perhaps to help bring a different style of rugby.”

Both Saints and Ulster will present the sort of physical challenge that Strauss is used to from Super Rugby. Northampton’s pack is likely to include the abrasive hooker Dylan Harley and big-hitting lock-cum-blindside Courtney Lawes, not to mention Brian “The Beast” Mujati, although a back row including Tom Wood and No.8 Martin Dowson is built for speed and guile rather than raw power. Against a mobile Ulster pack which has been spearheaded by outstanding No.8 Nick Williams, Strauss’s input will be crucial.

His ability to get Glasgow on the front foot will be central to their prospects this season. Standing 6ft 5in and weighing in at 18 stone, Strauss can play at lock or blindside but is best as a barnstorming No.8 who knows where his strengths lie. “I like carrying the ball, and have done since I was a little boy,” he says, “but I don’t have too many ball skills so I tend to just catch the ball and then go as hard as I can. So I’d describe myself as an unskilled biggish loose forward.”

There are many in South Africa who would take issue with his verdict that he is “unskilled”, but the jovial Bok is certainly a man who leads from the front and who demonstrated leadership qualities when skippering the Golden Lions. Yet despite being called into the Springbok training squad earlier this year, national coach Heyneke Meyer has pointedly preferred Pierre Spies, Duane Vermeulen, Marcel Coetzee, Keegan Daniel, Willem Alberts and Jacques Potgieter to Strauss, while Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow also stand ahead of him in the pecking order.

If Strauss’s move has partly been forced upon him, and partly because of the wooing of Lions great Gregor Townsend and the SRU’s outgoing performance director Graham Lowe, he nevertheless seems to like what he’s found in Glasgow. “This is a team with a lot of talent and some great players,” he said. “Something that’s really impressed me is that it’s such a young side, and to have performed so well at such a young age means there’s lots of scope for them to grow and to become and even better team. This team could become a side which wins trophies and titles – we should obviously be winning the RaboDirect and the Heineken Cup, and if we do that I’ll be happy.”

If he can help Glasgow achieve that, rest assured he wouldn’t just get a cap in three years’ time – he’d get the captain’s armband and the freedom of the city too.