AFTER a summer training with All Blacks, Grant Gilchrist’s rugby journey will move to its own international stage on Saturday in the glorious surroundings of the Stade de France.
The 22-year-old lock, who fondly recalls running around the fields of Alloa as a budding stand-off with his cousin Sean Kennedy, the young Glasgow scrum-half, was disappointed not to make his Test debut against Tonga in November, after being named on the bench. Now he is eager to reward the faith of Scotland coach Scott Johnson by bringing an extra punch to Scotland’s forward pack.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” he admitted. “I was hoping to be in the squad but to be starting is really exciting. It is an amazing opportunity for me and I can’t wait till Saturday night.
“I was desperate to get on [against Tonga] and prove my point. I thought that was going to be an opportunity, but it turned out it wasn’t. This is my next opportunity and, hopefully, from the start it allows me to show what I can do.”
Johnson spoke in December, on taking over the reins from Andy Robinson, about how he wanted to use the Six Nations to bring through fresh talent he felt would be key players in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup, and Scotland’s bid to recover from the early 2011 knock-out.
Tom Heathcote, the Bath stand-off, is another who he would have liked to have introduced to the Six Nations arena, but he is currently injured, and Johnson acknowledged that Gilchrist would have been involved earlier had he not suffered a twisted ankle playing for Edinburgh during the first championship break in February.
That means he now comes into the squad with no game-time in a month, which is hardly ideal, and with 31-year-old Alastair Kellock, one of Scottish rugby’s form players this season with Glasgow, kept on the bench. It is a controversial and bold call by Johnson, but one he was determined to make before the Six Nations window closed.
“He [Gilchrist] has been on our horizon for some time,” Johnson said, “and we just felt this was an opportune time. We said from day one that we’re looking at form and future and he fits the latter.
“It hasn’t been a perfect build-up for him, but we felt that he needed the run and needed to show and learn, and this is an ideal way to do it.
“We are really happy with what Al brings us late in the game, a bit of maturity and composure, and we wanted it to be like for like, and not moving others about. I spoke to Al before the campaign started because I have a lot of time for Al, as a person and a rugby player.
“He has signed for another two years [with Glasgow], but it’s doubtful whether he’ll make the final campaign of the World Cup, and we want to suck his brains while he’s here. He’s forgotten more than most know in certain areas of the game.
“Grant is a quality kid and is going to be a quality player. Is he the finished article? No, he’s not. But I’m mindful of the fact that we want him around in two years’ time [at the World Cup] and this is a perfect opportunity to start the ball rolling. We have the utmost confidence in Grant. This is the start of a really nice journey.”
The only other change to the side that lost to Wales comes in the back row and represents another bold move, not in bringing back Perpignan flanker Alasdair Strokosch from injury, but in exacerbating the lack of a genuine openside flanker in a team struggling for consistency at the breakdown. Rob Harley, who can at least provide cover, is dropped out of the 23 altogether and there is still no place for experienced and fit-again Glasgow openside John Barclay.
“We’ve loved the energy that Rob provides,” said Johnson, “but he’s got to be a little more efficient in certain things he does and we think Strokosch can provide that.”
By sticking with Ryan Wilson on the bench, he is continuing the theme of rewarding form and exposing future talents now, but Johnson accepted that they were taking a risk by leaving Harley off the bench. Typically candidly, he said that Barclay had been considered, but left out because his form with Glasgow since returning from injury had not been good enough to warrant selection ahead of Kelly Brown nor Wilson.
The introduction of Gilchrist will be intriguing and will have thrown French expectations as much as it surprised Scottish supporters. He is a talented performer with good ball skills and so is comfortable carrying ball, but he has a strong, aggressive edge in the close quarters which Edinburgh supporters have seen manifest in the odd flare-up with vastly more experienced forwards in the RaboDirect and Heineken Cup.
He stands 6ft 8in tall and now weighs 18st 7lbs and, having spent last summer in New Zealand on the John Macphail Scholarship, mentored by All Black Sam Whitelock and training with him and other Crusaders players, the former Lornshill Academy pupil’s understanding of the game is rapidly growing. “New Zealand was a great experience and Sam and I keep in contact through emails,” he said. “We don’t speak all the time but I’ll probably be in touch with him after this [selection], and I’m sure he’ll be pleased for me.”
Gilchrist was as surprised as anyone to see his name on the team list inside Murrayfield this week, but he remains confident that he will not be fazed by a Six Nations debut in Paris and a French pack striving to regain pride on Saturday.
“I was looking towards the bench [when the team was posted up] and when I didn’t see my name I thought I might not be involved. I then looked over and went oooh. It was a blind panic at first looking for my name and then when I saw I was starting I was massively excited.
“I have played Yoann Maestri against Toulouse before, and he is a big physical player, and the other guy, [Christophe] Samson, is a talented guy.
“I’m looking forward to Saturday. It is a top-class place to play rugby. I have watched matches at the Stade de France with envy, thinking how great it would be to play there.
“It feels surreal I will be running out there starting for Scotland and, to be honest, it probably hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”