BORN in Alloa, a spell in New Zealand was the making of the young lock, says Iain Morrison
THERE aren’t too many famous names to have emerged from Alloa over the years. Alan Hansen and Lord Forte are the only two that Wikipedia could name, but the online fount of all knowledge may have to add one more to the list soon.
Size isn’t everything but it does come in handy and, at 6ft 7in, Edinburgh’s young lock Grant Gilchrist is a seriously big man who appears to be constructed almost entirely from limbs. Even in the safety of a Murrayfield hospitality box Gilchrist flaps his arms about in alarming fashion, so good luck to anyone caught up in the danger zone on the pitch.
A product of Alloa’s Lornshill Academy, and cousin to Scotland sevens scrum-half Sean Kennedy, Gilchrist is a good talker. Wind him up and away he goes, equally at ease chatting about major earthquakes in New Zealand or minor ones in this year’s Heineken Cup.
The second row forward sports a look of vague bemusement throughout the interview, which may be down to Edinburgh’s unexpected progress to a semi-final clash with UIster in Dublin on Saturday or the central part that he has played in it because Gilchrist has a record in this competition that is second to none. With injury sidelining him for Edinburgh’s only defeat in the Heineken – in Cardiff – the young Scot has played six European matches and won all of them.
“I’m still holding onto my 100 per cent record in the Heineken Cup,” he says with justifiable pride. “I hope that will just continue for my whole career and that will be that! It does make me laugh a little bit to say that I’m 100 per cent in the Heineken Cup.”
Having only featured as he puts it “in bits and bobs” for Edinburgh before this season, Gilchrist has edged past the more experienced Steven Turnbull and the Argentine international Esteban Lozada to cement his place in Michael Bradley’s starting XV. There is no doubt in his own mind where his current good form was forged – in the Canterbury mud thanks to a sabbatical in New Zealand last year.
“Obviously I’m very thankful to the Macphail family and the Robertson Trust that funded it [the trip] because it made a very big difference to my rugby,” says Gilchrist of his scholarship at the Crusaders academy. “I went from not being involved to starting every week, which I don’t think I’d have been able to do if I hadn’t had that summer in New Zealand.
“I had just come off the back of a serious injury [a broken ankle] so the opportunity to play in the summer when everyone else is off was the main benefit. Just getting that game time under my belt while learning alongside some of the best rugby players in the world.
“I had quite a lot of one-on-one time with Sam Whitelock who’s obviously an All Black. He was reviewing my games and giving me some pretty individual feedback, which was invaluable.”
It is a little like having Jamie Oliver taste your ratatouille or getting driving tips from Jenson Button and the experience of having his game critiqued by Whitelock has stood Gilchrist in good stead. Maybe one day the Scots will repay the favour by helping Scotland beat New Zealand for the first time ever. And, if that seems a less-than-likely scenario, a quick look at the pro teams suggests that Scottish rugby is not quite the basket case it has occasionally been since the dawn of professionalism. Edinburgh are in the European semi-finals (and for this to sink in it helps to see it in print), Glasgow are fighting for a place in the RaboDirect Pro12 play-offs and there are a group of young players coming through who offer hope that the future may not be quite as bleak as Scotland’s recent run of seven straight losses suggests.
If Gilchrist, Tom Brown, David Denton and Matt Scott head the list of young hopefuls in the east, then Glasgow boast Stuart Hogg, Chris Fusaro, Rob Harley and Alex Dunbar. Whether this is anything more profound than the natural cycle of professional life, young players unseating older ones, or whether there is a quorum of top class young professionals who are ready to launch a rugby revolution in Scotland is a moot point.
It is probably too early to say but there is no doubt that Scotland are well placed for locks with Gilchrist only adding to riches that include Sale’s Fraser McKenzie and 18-year-old Jonny Gray, who is said to be better than his big brother Richie was at the same age. If anything has changed, it is the speed at which these players are being promoted, perhaps because an outsider like Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley arrived here with fewer preconceptions than a Scottish coach would have had.
“If you’re good enough you’ll play and that’s what I’d say to any of the guys in the academy changing rooms,” says Gilchrist, still an academy player himself. “They aren’t the type of coaches who will stick with players because they played well two seasons ago or even two games ago. I feel like that, if I was a young player here who wasn’t involved, I’d know that if I put some form together and trained well that I’d be pretty sure that Michael and the guys would put me in the team and that’s a good place to be in terms of the squad as a whole. Having those young guys who are ambitious and trying to work their way into the team is definitely going to drive things up.
“Quite a large number of my uner-20s team are involved here and at Glasgow. There’s me, Dents [David Denton], Stuart McInally, Alan Walker, Matt Scott, Bob Harley and Alex Dunbar. We all came through together and I’m sure there are more. It is good to have other young guys in the same position. At the same time we all look to the older guys, when they come back from the Six Nations, the Chunks [Allan Jacobsen] and the Fordys [Ross Ford] and these guys with vast experience to tap into and have word in your ear now and then. That’s the perfect combination, I think.”
The combination will need to be perfect next Saturday because Edinburgh are underdogs again against Ulster, just as they have been in pretty much every Heineken match this season. It has been a fairytale adventure for Edinburgh and their young lock is reluctant to pinch himself in case he wakes up. What would a place in the Twickenham final mean to him?
“It would be incredible!” says Gilchrist, his face lighting up. “Getting to the quarter-final was incredible for me in terms of playing in that stature of game and playing in a game that surpassed anything I’ve played in before. Obviously the semi is going to go there again and we just don’t want it to stop. Let’s just keep winning and go on.”
With the explosive start he’s had it won’t be long before folk in Alloa are talking about Grant Gilchrist and Alan who?