RICHIE Gray emerged from Murrayfield last week soaked in sweat and staring at three possibilities: a spot on the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, a place on Scotland’s tour to South Africa or a genuine chance of qualifying for the next Olympic Games with the Team GB rowing team.
He was thankful yesterday that he managed to scoop the top prize, but that third option provided an indication of the work that the 23-year-old lock has so far put himself through in order to prove his fitness for Warren Gatland’s 2013 squad. Arguably the most athletic lock forward in the British Isles since he burst on to the Test stage in 2010, 6ft 9in Gray has had to live with the expectation rather than more common hope of Scots inking him into this Lions squad.
Until he went down clutching a torn hamstring against Wales in the recent RBS Six Nations and had to be taken off the field on a motorised cart that is. Then the picture changed and the one Scot that seemed a shoe-in for the red jersey this summer suddenly became a doubt.
“I wasn’t too sure of the extent of the damage myself at that point,” he explained yesterday. “I was just gutted to be going off the pitch against Wales.
“But then I had the usual scans and medical and the timeline [for recovery] was six-to-eight weeks, and I knew then that I had a shot, so I’ve been doing everything I can to put myself in the best possible position.”
That has entailed a steady build-up of rehab and then training under the watchful eye of the SRU’s Stevie Mutch and James Robson, the chief Scotland and, handily, Lions medic. For the past month he has been stepping it up, and Robson revealed that his rowing prowess – on dry land – typified his desire to make the cut.
“Richie has worked exceptionally hard,” he said. “In the gym last week he was pulling out personal bests and even managed an Olympic qualifying time for the 2k rowing. He has come back fresh and eager to be on the Lions tour and the aim was that, if he didn’t make the Lions tour, he would be fit to go on the Scotland tour.”
Underlining the growing maturity in the player who left Glasgow a fresh-faced kid and has endured an arduous lesson in rugby at struggling Sale, Gray said: “I owe James. He’s been fantastic and very supportive along the way. I’ve been going through the mill with a lot of rowing sessions every week, but it’s actually been enjoyable and now I’m over the moon.
“The whole goal over the last six to eight weeks was just to get myself fit enough, and my hamstring well enough, so that I could put my name in the hat. I was giving it big licks. I didn’t know it was an Olympic time, but I knew it was half decent. It was certainly the fastest I’ve gone and was a goal of mine over six weeks to get sub six [minutes] for two kilometres. That was the plan and it was achieved. A YouTube video awaits!”
His time was not far off Olympic gold medallist Matt Pinsent’s best for 2000m – Pinsent holds the British record of 5.42 – and Gatland was certainly impressed by the condition report he received from Robson. He feels Gray’s athleticism will be invaluable to the Lions style of game and believes the two months Gray has spent training will have the benefit of making him one of the freshest players on tour.
The Scot cut his ties with Sale this week and now has paperwork to complete over at his new club Castres, but he will head to warmer climes knowing his hard work has been rewarded, before returning to Scotland to continue his training.
“It’s been an anxious couple of weeks,” he added. “I was trying to avoid the announcement. I was at home [in Glasgow] and didn’t particularly want to watch it, but my old man sat down with me and kind of forced me to watch it. It was a long ten minutes waiting for the second rows to come out. But it’s a huge honour and I’m absolutely delighted.”