Jonny Gray is in line to make a speedy return to action for Glasgow Warriors this Friday night, for their vital Pro12 clash against Ulster at Scotstoun.
The 22-year-old lock suffered a partial pectoral tear during Scotland’s Six Nations victory over France ten days ago, and missed last Saturday’s defeat in Ireland as a result – but Warriors’ forwards coach Dan McFarland revealed yesterday that the club captain is back in training and available this weekend.
“Having Jonny in the team as captain is a massive plus,” he said.
“In my mind he is a world-class player. So far, and bearing in mind he is a very young man, he may not have had the headlines that an Alyn Wyn Jones has had. He has a way to go to get them, but I have no doubt he can get to that level because he has already played a fantastic role at a high level for us.”
McFarland added that he expected all the Scottish internationalists returning to the squad – including Finn Russell (who suffered a concussion against France) – to be in the selection mix for Friday’s match.
“While the internationalists have been away the lads who have been here have excelled. They have done a really good job over that period, but we love to have the whole squad together, so having everyone back is brilliant,” explained the coach.
McFarland arrived at the club from Connacht last summer, replacing the long-serving and popular Shade Munro. He was thrown in at the deep end, with his first few months at the club coinciding with Scotland’s preparation for the World Cup, meaning that pre-season training involved working with a pack bereft of 11 key forwards, who were in the extended national training squad. Eight Warriors forwards eventually made it into the 31-man squad for the tournament.
The coach says it has been a lot easier reintegrating the internationalists into the squad this time round, as opposed to introducing himself to players for the first time during the week of the match.
“They have the structures in their minds already so it is a question of re-introducing them and just slipping back into it that way,” he explained.
If the Warriors are going to repeat last year’s achievement of lifting the Pro 12 title in May, they are going to have to do it the hard way. Their season has been disrupted by international commitments, injury crises and weather postponements – but they are still in the hunt.
They are currently sixth in the Pro12 table but could climb ahead of Ulster this weekend if they manage to win, score four tries and deprive their opponents of a bonus point. They could even move into fourth, in the unlikely event of Munster slipping up at home against Zebre.
They have a game in hand over both those teams so know that their destiny is in their own hands, but as the season rumbles interminably towards its conclusion, there really is no room for error.
Some people might call that pressure, but McFarland says that it is vital that the players don’t let the significance of each of their remaining six matches cloud their focus.
“Professional sport always has pressure: week-in and week-out. Imagine if one week I turned up and I decided it was not so important because it is the first game of the season, then at the end of the season people are saying there is more pressure so I am trying harder – that is just plain wrong,” he reasons.
“I come in on a Monday, and whether it is the first or last game of the season, I am preparing with the same efficiency every time.”
“The pressure does build, but it can’t get in the way of your job. If you’re a goal-kicker and you’re out at practice then it’s obviously a different context than if you’re in the Millennium Stadium kicking a goal kick to win a World Cup semi-final.
“But you go and ask the kicker the reason he practises, and the reason he does that every day is so that when he gets to that situation, the context and the pressure isn’t affecting him in what he does.”