'My first taste of French rugby, the first scrum fell and it was a 15-on-15 brawl. It was sink or swim - I had to punch back'
It was quite the wait for ex-Scotland back row Josh Strauss to finally get his first Oyonnax start on Friday night ages after signing a six-month deal with the French Pro D2 club in early December as a medical joker for the injured Luke Hamilton.
He missed out on the pre-Christmas action after contracting Covid the week following his arrival back in Europe. Then when the league resumed at the beginning of January, he was red-carded for a tackle after coming off the bench at Grenoble.
Add in the ensuing ban and it meant it wasn’t until Friday night’s draw at Mont-de-Marsan that he was at last on the pitch starting a match and remembering what it was like to a proper rugby player for the first time in eleven months.
It was March 14 last year in Brisbane when Strauss last ran out to play from the first whistle, the Bulls taking on the Reds before Super Rugby was shelved due to the pandemic. What followed was an incredibly difficult adjustment.
A sharp exit from the Bulls, an offer at the Stormers that fell through and then a lifeline from the French second tier after what had seemed an endless purgatory where the 34-year-old South African feared the end was nigh for a reputable career where he won 24 caps for Scotland on the back of a residency qualification.
Le club est heureux de vous annoncer le recrutement de l’international écossais Joshua STRAUSS en tant que Joker médical de Luke HAMILTON.
Nous lui souhaitons la bienvenue.
— Oyonnax Rugby (@OyonnaxRugby) December 8, 2020
The irony of it all is that Strauss has wound up at promotion-chasing Oyonnax, about 70kms up the Eastern France road from Lons-le-Saunier, the spa town where he spent his first year in the paid rugby ranks many moons ago. It was a baptism of fire for the then 20-year-old, a lesson in growing up very fast in order to survive the weekly anarchy of naughty wild west behaviour.
“I’ll never forget my first game, we played Massy in Paris,” Strauss told RugbyPass over the phone from France while seeing the final days out of his recent ban. “I was scrumming at No8 in my first taste of foreign rugby, the first taste of senior rugby, and the first scrum, the front row fell and it was a 15-on-15 brawl straightaway.
“I stood there shocked and the No8 on the other team, a player from Ivory Coast, ran across the scrum trying to fight me. I had never seen this guy but he was marking the eight and he just came at me and started throwing fists. It was sink or swim. I had to punch back.”
Why Strauss was in France in the first place in 2007 was a reflection of the cut-throat business that is trying to make it as a pro in South Africa. If you don’t get an early look-in the door is effectively closed and even his French arrival wasn’t without its troubles, his plan taking a hit just before he was due to travel.
“In South Africa, it’s almost if you don’t make it at school it’s very tough to make it after. If you don’t make a name for yourself at schoolboy level playing for Western Province or the Bulls or the Lions U18s, U20s etc and South Africa U20s it’s very tough to make it.
“I never reached any of those milestones so the year after school I went to play in a small union which wasn’t too far from my house, about a 45-minute drive. I played for their U19s, it was still Currie Cup, still provincial rugby but we were the whipping boys of the competition.
“I was then on my way to Biarritz to try my luck there and literally the week of my flight they informed us that the French federation had brought in bans on having too many foreigners. That’s when the JIFF thing started happening.
“Biarritz already had too many foreigners on their books so that fell through the week of my flight and I managed to get the gig at Lons. It was still a decent level given that Federale 1 is semi-professional. It was my first taste of proper senior rugby. I had played amateur senior rugby in South Africa but it’s not on the same level.
“I came over to Lons and I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I was still playing juniors. I still remember asking the manager where is the U20s and he was like ‘no U20s, we play first-team’. I went, ‘Oh s***, here we go’. It was a tough league, especially back then there was a lot of fighting, really physical. A lot of old boys who had played Top 14 came down.
“We had a very good year, made the playoffs to go to Pro D2 but unfortunately we played Colomiers in the playoff game. They had just been relegated from Top 14 due to financial reasons and they absolutely spanked us. That is where that season ended.
“I did get an offer to stay but at that age being alone away from home for a year I wasn’t too keen on staying. If I had an offer from a Pro D2 team I would have considered it but I wasn’t keen on staying in Federale 1 for another year.
“Not that I didn’t enjoy the club. I have to give you a bit of background: the president left the club and told us not to re-sign because he said the people taking over won’t run the club as professionally. That is when I actually made my decision not to stay. In hindsight, it was a great decision because they got financially relegated the next year by four divisions due to bankruptcy, so it worked out well.”
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It sure did for Strauss. His maturation in France became the launchpad for multiple ensuing thrills, good form at Boland delivering him into the Super Rugby Lions. Five years at Glasgow was then followed by two more at Sale before he decided to head home via a pitstop at Stade Francais to fill the void of missing out on 2019 World Cup selection.
The Bulls had piqued his interest. However, rather than Pretoria being a match made in heaven for the twilight of his career, it was very nearly the death knell. “I signed a two-year deal with the Bulls, started all seven games before Covid hit and we were talking about extending. I loved the coach (Pote Human) and loved the set-up.
“Then Covid happened and they fired that coach, fired the CEO who signed me and implemented a 46 per cent pay cut on everyone. I contacted South Africa rugby and said I have already come back on a massive pay cut. I was offered a deal to stay in Paris with Stade but I wanted to go back to my family.
“I had it all planned out but Covid happened and all this planning fell through. The option was to stay in Pretoria away from my family in Cape Town for half the salary and not see them anymore. With the old coach, the agreement was that every week I could go home for two days to see my family.
#BullsFamily bids farewell to flank Josh Strauss.
The Blue Bulls Company would like to confirm that it has reached a mutual settlement with flank Josh Strauss regarding his departure from Loftus.
— Official Blue Bulls (@BlueBullsRugby) June 25, 2020
“When the new coach (Jake White) came in he said, ‘No, that won’t be the case anymore’. He wanted me there full-time and I just said I’d rather not do that, thank you, so we parted ways. To be fair at that stage I didn’t think Covid would have that much effect on the global market. I just assumed I would walk into another contract and that unfortunately wasn’t the case.
“I have been chatting to mates, especially older mates, and Covid has had a massive effect on the older market. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. I didn’t know what would happen. I just made decisions based on my experiences and now we are where we are.”
It didn’t help that a suggested deal with the Stormers fell through, a mishap that further convinced Strauss of the need for SA Rugby to allow its franchises be 100 per cent privately owned businesses so they can properly thrive.
“It needs private ownership,” he said. “In South Africa, the rugby law states that no one can own more than SA Rugby. So even though I might be the owner of the Stormers I’m only allowed to own 49 per cent. That is how SA Rugby keeps control of the union.
— Drummers Only (@drummersonlyuk) April 21, 2015
“It should be 100 per cent privately owned because there are people in the country that have enough money to make South Africa, especially with the talent there, a global powerhouse. But because SA Rugby rules the roost there they undermine everything and that is why salaries are smaller.
“If it was privately owned they could pay players what they wanted within the cap. South African players are very underpaid compared to the rest of the world. They get paid peanuts compared to Europe.
“The thing with the Stormers, the coach (John Dobson) wanted to sign me because they were in talks with a private company to buy the Stormers and be the owners. If that went through I would have signed a two-year deal. That never went through and then there wasn’t money to sign me.
“That is why I said it should be privately owned. The Stormers are going down the road of bankruptcy at the moment if things don’t change and it shouldn’t be the case. Cape Town is a lovely place and you should be able to run a great rugby union.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 5, 2021
The fallout left Strauss hanging by the phone and contemplating retirement. “It’s definitely stressful. All of a sudden your whole plan changed. I had a two/three-year plan for my transition from playing to life after rugby and all of a sudden that is cut short.
“Your agent is telling you don’t worry, we’ll find something. A month goes by, then two months, three months and you’re like, ‘S***, what’s happening here?’ Then you start realising the market isn’t what it used to be. I’d plenty of offers but some were laughable compared to what I used to earn.
“I spoke to my wife, decided on a number I would be able to play rugby for or else I would go working at something else. I did stress but there was also an element of if I work hard and back myself, I will find something and prove myself. It’s almost like a bit of psychology, you calm yourself down by saying that to yourself.
“There were times when I was phoning my agent and saying, ‘I think I should retire, I should just start doing something else’. But the market, I have spoken to a few players in the same boat as me, including one at Oyonnax who is an ex-French international (Benjamin Fall). He sat it out waiting six months for a contract and he is a very good player, but it’s just the market.”
Special night,thanks to everyone who made it just that.Thanks for every msg.Special thanks to every warrior who's been part of the journey. pic.twitter.com/fJAsJ6cz19
— Josh Strauss (@JoshStrauss1) December 18, 2016
The state of flux is why Strauss doesn’t know yet what the future holds after June. A deal in France would see his family join him from Cape Town, but until then he’s in limbo, contemplating taking a business degree and teasing out other plans for a post-playing career that could involve coaching, preferably at schools/university level, as he has taken his badges.
“People close to me, they see what I do and still they think that rugby is just this glamorous job where you have these accolades and you’re travelling. But there is a lot of other sides to rugby people don’t see and one of them is the time with the family.
“At the moment I’m on my own in Oyonnax hoping to get re-signed long-term and then my family will come over, but there is a lot of sacrifices involved. I went home for Christmas and was going to be there for eleven days and I had to cut it short because they started closing the borders because of this new strain.
“I don’t know when I will see them again. Hopefully, before my six-month contract is up. Life is crazy at the moment, but you have just got to roll with it.”
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