Former Lions captain Josh Strauss made his Test debut for Scotland at the World Cup, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
‘I think his beard makes him a difficult opponent; he becomes a difficult target to tackle because it gets in the way,’ Schalk Burger said with a laugh.
It’s not the sort of comment you’d normally expect to hear at a World Cup press conference, but the ever-jovial Burger couldn’t help but light-heartedly drop in this gem of a one-liner during the build-up to the Boks’ third pool game against Scotland on 3 October.
The comment, of course, was in reference to South African-born Scotland No 8 Josh Strauss, who has remained eminently recognisable with his lumberjack-like beard.
Strauss made the move to Scotland in 2012, having failed to break into the Springbok squad despite hovering on the periphery after a number of standout performances for the Lions, a side he captained to Currie Cup glory in 2011.
Yet when the Lions were excluded from the 2013 Super Rugby competition at the expense of the Kings, Strauss heard that Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend, a former Sharks player, was interested in acquiring his services.
Excited by the prospect, Strauss took the rather unusual decision of heading to Scotland’s western lowlands, although at the time, an international career for his adopted nation was certainly not on his rugby radar.
‘I knew about the residency rule when I first came here, but I never gave it much thought,’ he admits. ‘For me, it was all about settling in with Glasgow and proving myself.’
Strauss did just that, quickly establishing himself as an integral member of the Glasgow Warriors team, and doing enough during his 75 appearances – including leading them to a historic first Celtic Pro12 title in 2015 – to catch the eye of Scotland coach Vern Cotter.
Nevertheless, the bearded back rower was a controversial inclusion in Scotland’s World Cup squad, having only just completed the three-year residency regulation to become eligible to play the day after the start of the tournament.
Strauss would finally make his long-awaited Scotland debut in their opening match against Japan on 23 September. Sporting a striking tartan scrum cap, the 29-year-old came off the bench as the Scots rallied to secure a five-try bonus-point win.
‘I have been in the game for a long time, and I’m actually older than I look,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘You never know if you’ll come off the bench so when I got the tap to get ready it was butterflies and nerves. It was a great feeling and even more special to win like that.’
Strauss started the next game against the USA at No 8 and made a significant impact, making the most carries over the gainline (six), while maintaining his nearly 100% tackle success rate.
It was enough to see him start at blindside flank for the match against the Boks, and despite the prospect of coming up against his former countrymen, Strauss admitted there was no room for sentiment before the game.
‘People asked me about it and whether I’d be conflicted playing against South Africa. I wouldn’t be. I tried to become a Springbok but it didn’t happen. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.
‘I’m not sentimental about it being my old country. I love Cape Town and it will always be home, but if you’re selected to play for a team, you play as hard as you can and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against.’
And considering Strauss’s South African background, it’s really no surprise that Burger identified the burly loose forward – and his beard – as a threat.
‘Jokes aside, Josh is an exceptional player. He was at Western Province as a junior and played good rugby. He is a strong ball-carrier and the typical type of physical South African forward. It is tough to play against a guy like that and he speaks Afrikaans. It’s not like the old days where we could make a few plans [in Afrikaans] on the field.’
And then, of course, there’s the beard that’s feared …
– This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine