As Josh Strauss prepares to make his first Scotland start since that ill-fated afternoon in Suva, Fiji, last summer, he revealed that he had never given up hope of returning to the Test arena after receiving regular contact and honest feedback from his former club coach Gregor Townsend.
Strauss was one of the players who had a real off day in that shock 27-22 loss to Fiji on tour and it seemed like he may have been cast into the international wilderness. An undoubted powerful ball carrier, Strauss said his lack of energy around the park has been something picked up on and that he has tried to rectify.
Strauss was picked for Scotland as soon as his residence qualification came through, making his debut in the 2015 World Cup opener against Japan in Gloucester, but his star steadily waned and, having left Glasgow to join Sale Sharks, the South Africa-born No.8’s was starting to enter forgotten-man status when back-row injuries led to an injury cover call-up earlier this month.
An early appearance off the bench against the land of his birth last week, when Matt Fagerson went off injured, has been rewarded with a starting slot against Argentina tomorrow, and Strauss couldn’t be happier.
“I wouldn’t say I’d put it out of my head completely. But when two or three squads are picked and you’re not involved – I mean, it’s still not something I thought was done,” said the 16-times capped man from the Western Cape. But I got to the point where I just started thinking ‘just focus on your game at Sale. That’s all you can do’.
“All I could do was play well for Sale and, if I was good enough, I’d get picked. If I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t going to get picked.
“I always got calls [from Gregor], even if I wasn’t selected. We would talk about why, what I could do etcetera.
“We obviously spent five years together at Glasgow, so I don’t think it was anything personal – hopefully! It was just maybe me getting old and slow – hopefully I’ve become quicker in recent months.
“It meant a lot to get those calls. If you are getting those calls, at least the possibility is still there – and it keeps your motivation going.
‘If you just don’t hear from the coach, you think ‘right, this is dead in the water’. But that’s 50 per cent of the job as a coach, man management.”
Strauss was open about what Townsend had told him he needed to change if he was to get back in a dark blue jersey.
“My big problem in my career has always been work rate. I’m not the most stamina-driven athlete in the world,” said the 2015 Pro12 winner with Warriors.
“That’s always been the thing, just getting more involved. Even at Glasgow, Gregor was always about the work rate. The more involvement you got with the game, obviously the more you’re switched on.
“That was one thing he wanted to see more of from me. I sometimes just fall into that pattern of carrying the ball, not doing much for a while, then carrying the ball again.
“He just wanted to see more from me. That was basically the chat – just as it was at Glasgow. You’ve got to get it right or you don’t play.”
At 32, Strauss has slotted back into the senior part of the Scotland squad, although he rejects any old fogey tag.
“We old guys tend to talk about movies and music they’ve never heard of,” he said with a smile, before adding: “I mean, I’ve always seen myself as someone who is very young at heart. I still feel 18 in my head.
“Obviously the body tells me differently but it’s good, it keeps you young, keeps you excited about rugby, when the younger boys are there and you’re mingling with them.
“I come from a different background, in South Africa, where it was a bit tougher when you were young. The older boys wouldn’t really speak to you. There’s a British culture, or maybe it’s just change over time, where everyone is integrated much better, a much better fit.”
Strauss may have been into his late 20s when his Scotland eligibility was finally formalised and is now residing in Manchester, but he is passionate about his adopted country and hopes to help drive the team forward into a successful future beyond his playing career.
“There’s a scrum-half at Sale with me who’s Scottish qualified [Gus Warr], and that’s great as well. There’s more to come and the players coming through are really good.
“We’ve got quite a lot of young players in the squad – time flashes before your eyes, it seems like only yesterday that I was one of the young guys and now I’m one of the grandfathers of the group. It’s great for Scottish rugby. It’s a weird business to be in because you’re 32 and you’re mates with 18 year olds!”
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow); Sean Maitland (Saracens), Huw Jones (Glasgow), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Adam Hastings (Glasgow), Greig Laidlaw (c) (Clermont); Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh),
Josh Strauss (Sale). Replacements: Stuart McInally (Edinburgh); Alex Allan (Glasgow); Willem Nel (Edinburgh); Sam Skinner (Exeter); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow); George Horne (Glasgow); Alex Dunbar (Glasgow); Byron McGuigan (Sale).