JOSH STRAUSS was in the eight jersey when Scotland lost 27-22 to Fiji in rain-sodden Suva back in June 2017. He picked up a yellow-card in that match for a no-arms tackle on his old friend Leone Nakarawa, and it was about the only time in the match he managed to impose himself physically – which was extremely disappointing because that was precisely what he was in the team to do.
All in all, it was an extremely bad day for the former Glasgow Warriors man, who was joining Sale Sharks at the start of the following season, and he paid a heavy price by being cut out of the Scotland set-up – apart from an odd extended squad appearance – for the next 17-months.
When he was omitted from the 40-man training squad for Scotland’s final two matches of last season’s Six Nations, then didn’t make the summer tour to the Americas – with Magnus Bradbury, Dave Denton and Matt Fagerson all selected ahead of him as recognised number eights, plus Ryan Wilson being given a summer break – it was hard to escape the feeling that the 32-year-old’s international career was over, after just 14 caps since qualifying to wear the thistle through residency in September 2015.
Sure enough, he wasn’t initially involved in this Autumn series, but when Denton, Bradbury and potential debutant Blade Thomson all joined the injured player list, the decision was made to hand Strauss one last chance – ahead of Adam Ashe of Glasgow Warriors and Luke Hamilton of Edinburgh – to resurrect his international career.
The call was made, and the player jumped at the opportunity to be one of six men called up to Townsend’s squad this week ahead of Saturday’s clash against Fiji at Murrayfield.
“It’s good, although it’s a bit of a surprise really,” he smiled. “I came in on Sunday night. It’s a bit different in terms of intensity to what I’ve been used to in club rugby [with Sale Sharks], but it’s been great to see the lads again – I have a good relationship with most of them. It’s been fun.
“I have no idea, you’ll have to ask Gregor,” Strauss replied, when asked why he thought he has been given the nod. “I had a week and a half off and then played in the Premiership Cup for Sale and had a pretty good game, handing Saracens their first draw of the season. Hopefully it’s my form, it’s not going to be my great chat. I’m just glad to be back.
“You have to be confident in your own abilities,” he added. “I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t worry about things outside of my control, so I’m at my club and I’ve got to play well there, and normally good things happen to you if you can do that. My mum always told me: You can’t keep a good man down, so I just try and be as good as I can be.”
Strauss now has an opportunity to exorcise a few demons from that Suva experience, by first of all convincing the coaching team that he is the man to take the game to Fiji on Saturday, and then – if he gets that chance – delivering a turbo-powered performance against the Pacific Islanders.
“I think the scary thing about Fiji is how big they are, and they can play a flair-based game. So, you analyse those things and try to do as well as you can to counter what they are going to throw at you, but it doesn’t matter how much flair-they have, you’ve got to hit them hard because they are all mountains of men,” he says.
The Nakarawa factor
And they don’t come much more mountainous than that man Nakarawa – but Strauss says there is much more to the giant lock than size, power, pace and ball-playing ability.
“He’s got a different mindset: he listens, he writes things down, he studies up on what we are doing, and when he does something bad he goes off and does his extras. I really think he just buys into it. He says: ‘I’m here, I’m going to work hard, I’m going to be the best.’ And that’s what sets him apart.”
“I’m not being bias because I like him … I would say he is probably one of the best rugby players I have very played with or against. He’s just such a great guy around any club or organisation – he’s always happy, works really hard, never grumpy about anything – and you don’t need me to tell you how good he is, and what a difference he can make to a team when he is on song.
“He is the only guy I know in world rugby who can stand upright with his arm in the air, get hit by three people, and not really move.
Fiji have a well-earned reputation for being gloriously unpredictable, and in Suva back in 2017, that extended to out-foxing Scotland by playing a conservative style of rugby we are more used to seeing from English Premiership clubs, which was the latest piece of evidence that they are evolving under Kiwi coach John McKee into something more than just rugby’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters.
“We were quite surprised,” explained Strauss. “All our analysis on them was about this flair-based, very loose game – offloads and all these things – but in the morning the rain came down and they just played a very structured and physical game, with forwards latching into each other and just trying to penetrate us that way.
“We maybe weren’t as ready for that side of their game, but it is now something we have seen once, and we know we have to be ready for.
“Regardless of how they play, you’ve got to just hit them hard and be physical. And it is the same at the breakdown – if we play with quick ball I feel we’ll have an advantage because they might not have the fitness.
“We’ve just got to focus on the things we’ve got to do right to beat them.”