LOCK forwards are known as the “engine room” of a rugby pack and, in Leeds yesterday, Scotland’s played its part in powering the team out of a hole.
The pickle Vern Cotter’s men found themselves in at the interval of the Pool B clash with the United States, trailing 13-6 after a spluttering 40 minutes, may not have been of Volkswagen proportions but the large Scottish support were hardly emitting positivity over their half-time cuppas.
Richie Gray is one of the stars of Scottish rugby but the stellar rise of his younger brother and Cotter’s admiration for the Edinburgh second row Grant Gilchrist has left the 6ft 10in blond battling for a place in the first-choice starting XV.
He got his chance yesterday and, after an opening period in which jitters ran through the whole team, grew into the game and helped Scotland take a much-needed grip in the second half. With partner Gilchrist leaving the field early on with a suspected adductor injury, Gray was joined by his old Glasgow mate Tim Swinson, who had been a surprise inclusion in the squad after spending the summer out injured himself.
There was interest in the opposition engine room too, with Glasgow-bound Greg Peterson forming a formidable unit with Hayden Smith, the onetime NFL tight end for the New York Jets, who now plays for Saracens.
American coach Mike Tolkin replaced both his starting locks by the early second half but in that time Peterson showed enough to suggest Gregor Townsend has made yet another canny acquisition and Smith proved that on any given Sunday he can dish out the big hits in rugby as well as gridiron.
Gray, meanwhile, remains a high-profile performer but there is no doubting that three years spent with underperforming clubs in England and France – Sale Sharks and Castres – have perhaps taken a bit of an edge off the 2013 Lion’s career.
He came off the bench in the opener against Japan when he was involved in a blooper of a missed restart and would have been burning to show what he can do at Elland Road yesterday. Things didn’t start smoothly, with the Scotland setpiece creaking a bit under pressure from a fired-up American eight. Gray was putting his body on the line, with a last-ditch tackle stopping a US onslaught just short, but the try by Titi Lamositele came from the next recycle and the Scots trooped in behind at the break.
As with the whole team, the half-time interval seemed to be a time when issues in the setpiece area were worked out, with frontline props Al Dickinson and Willem Nel on to steady the scrum. Heads seemed to calm and the second 40 proved a far more satisfying affair.
Swinson made the initial surge and pass to Josh Strauss which eventually put Tim Visser in on the left for the first, much-needed try. The scrum-capped 28-year-old then charged down to spark the pressure which led to Nel squeezing over for the third try which provided some welcome breathing space.
In keeping with Scotland’s oft-trod one step forward, one back path, Swinson then fumbled at the restart for a blemish on an otherwise impressive showing.
With no other second row left on the bench, Gray knew he was in for a full shift and he stepped up with an increasingly imposing display, which included some mighty clear-outs and clean takes in both lineout and under the restart. Ross Ford was struggling to keep the throw-ins straight, but when he did, Gray was usually there to pluck the ball and set up the platforms with which Scotland began to pound the American line, and one of those allowed Matt Scott to crash through for the vital bonus point-sealing touchdown.
With doubts over Gilchrist’s fitness, it could well be a Gray family affair in the second row against the Springboks.
South Africa will require a step up, and the kind of untidiness which characterised yesterday’s first half will be punished far more mercilessly by the two-time world champions, who got themselves back in the groove against Samoa on Saturday following their Japan humiliation. But, Gray the elder showed yesterday that he looks ready for that challenge.