Richie Gray grows in stature ahead of tall order for the Scots
Demolition of Italy will count for nothing unless huge second-rower can get to grips with Irish
Sunday 24 February 2013
Richie Gray walks into the Davies and Ireland Suite at Murrayfield and prepares to take questions from a standing position. Thankfully, he is persuaded to lever his huge frame into a seat. When your subject happens to be from the land of the giants, stretching up with a tape recorder in hand can be something of an ordeal.
It is two years now since the second-rower with the distinctive bottle-blond mop started to stand out on the Six Nations stage. In France's 34-21 winning start to the 2011 championship, Gray was as towering a feature of the Parisian landscape as Gustav Eiffel's landmark construction across town from Stade de France, his all-action performance eclipsing even those of the home players.
If Gray was not pumping the pistons of his long legs to burst through tackles, as he did when he cleared a path through French bodies to pave the way for the first of Scotland's three tries, he was making use of them to run down Gallic fliers. Yoann Huget and Aurélien Rougerie were both hauled down in their tracks. In his first start for his country in a Six Nations contest, the 21-year-old was ubiquitous and hugely influential – more like Red Rum on Aintree's home straight than "Bambi on ice".
It was the latter description that Jeremy Guscott chose to make in a pre-championship appraisal of Gray. The celebrated Prince of Centres also dismissed the lanky lock as "too slow and cumbersome" to make an impact in the Six Nations. In doing so, he unwittingly provided rich motivational fodder that would have been greatly appreciated by his former Bath colleague, Andy Robinson, the Scotland head coach who gave the coltish Gray three tastes of international action off the bench in the 2010 Six Nations before granting him three starting berths in the autumn that year.
His performance against France was hailed as "a coming-of-age display" and the Gallic press drooled over a new blond bombshell of the oval-balled game, a Jean-Pierre Rives on stilts.
Two years on, much water has flowed under the bridges of the Seine and the Forth. Guscott has long since eaten humble pie, swiftly apologising in print for his hasty appraisal. Robinson has gone back to the English West Country. Scott Johnson is in interim charge of the Scots. And, two games into the 2013 Six Nations, people are still sizing up Gray, now 23, whose cap haul will reach 30 when he lines up to face Ireland at Murrayfield this afternoon.
Two years ago, the exact height of the Rutherglen-born player was the subject of much speculation, being reported as anything from 6ft 8in to 6ft 10in. It has now been established, for the sake of the official RBS Six Nations stats, as the latter, which makes Gray the joint second-tallest man to play for Scotland – alongside the 6ft 10in John Frame but behind the 7ft 1in Richard Metcalfe.
It has not been easy for Gray to build on his reputation as a bright young thing in a Scotland side that has spent most of the past two years on the back foot losing – ditto on the club front this season, since moving from Edinburgh to Sale. He has, nonetheless, been mentioned in dispatches as a Lions contender, though mention of the L-word makes little impression on him.
"The focus for me is playing well for Scotland and performing my role," he says, playing a straight bat. "Anything after that would be a bonus. But I'm not thinking about that."
You can be sure of that. Gray is not thinking beyond this afternoon's 80-minute shift in the west end of Edinburgh. Ireland might be shorn of several major players, but it will still be an exacting test for Scotland.
There has been much said and written about a new Caledonia since the clinical 34-10, four-try demolition of Italy a fortnight ago, but that will count for very little when it comes to getting to grips with the Irish at the nitty-gritty of the breakdown.
"Yeah, the breakdown will be huge," Gray acknowledges. "We've been working on it very hard in training this week. Ireland are certainly good at it. They've got the choke-and-hold style of defence, which counts a lot at breakdowns, so we'll have to work hard in that area. It's going to be very tough. We'll have to be there pretty quick."
Patently, the Caledonian eye has not been taken off the basics in the wake of an impressive win against Italy that showcased the attacking talents of their dynamic back three, Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser. Johnson and Dean Ryan, the interim forwards coach, have made sure of that.
"We have taken huge confidence from the win against Italy," admits Gray. "We have shown our ability to score tries. But as a group we are staying grounded and not getting carried away.
"Obviously spirits are high in the camp. Everyone is buzzing. But we're focused on the task at hand.
"Ireland will be hurting from their loss to England. I think they will be coming to Murrayfield with a point to prove.
"They're a dangerous side," he adds. "They've got players across the board who can hurt you. We're not scared of them – we're not scared of any team – but we know it's going to be a tough challenge."
Ryan plays down expectations
Scotland have no right to expect a second Six Nations victory in as many games when they take on Ireland today, claims their forwards coach, Dean Ryan.
This month's 34-10 win over the Azzurri has raised anticipation among supporters that the Scots can mount a serious title challenge.
But Ryan, brought in to partner interim head coach, Scott Johnson, following the resignation of Andy Robinson, insists their first Championship success in two years means little when held up against the nation's previously shabby record.
Before beating Italy, Scotland had lost four matches in a row.
"We have won a game against Italy," he says. "Suddenly we are this attacking side with Lions contenders. But we are not. We have got to understand that."
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