The big fella earned his first cap off the bench against France in 2010 but it wasn’t until the following year that Richie Gray announced his arrival on the international stage with such a barnstorming performance in Paris that even the French crowd set aside their cynicism and roared their approval.
He carried the ball tirelessly, controlled the sidelines and made not one but two crucial tackles, the first on Aurelien Rougerie and the second to stop a flying Yoann Huget. It seemed like the 6ft 9in Scotland lock would be the next big thing, but it hasn’t been plain sailing.
One ill-advised move to Sale Sharks was followed quickly by another to Castres, who are currently anchored firmly to the foot of the French Top 14 with nine of the 23-match regular season still to play. Gray is back in blue where he belongs but only after a few difficult seasons and being dropped from Scotland’s starting XV. When fighting the drop with Castres is your day job the Six Nations probably comes as a little light relief?
“It’s a nice change,” Gray agrees. “It’s a fresh environment and it’s an environment that’s been going well. Obviously domestically it’s been quite tough, a tough season and you just have to do what you can, you work hard for your team and you slog it out. We are by no means finished, we still have some pretty important league games. But now you’ve got to turn ahead because you are playing for your country.”
Playing in the Top 14 has given the big man an insight into the French psyche and, more immediately, an intimate knowledge of three Castres players all of whom are in Philippe Saint-Andre’s match day squad: stand-off Remi Tales will play second fiddle to Camille Lopez, Remi Lamerat is a useful centre and the South African scrum-half Rory Kockott, one of three foreigners in this French squad, is something of a livewire who makes his first start on Saturday.
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“He’s an interesting character, I can tell you that much,” says Gray with a grin. “He is a very good player, an out-and-out athlete, very powerful, very fit and very fast and it should be pretty interesting going up against him because he can get pretty chippy as well.”
Don’t be surprised if Gray and the rest of the Scottish side are under instruction to test the scrum-half’s less than zen-like serenity with the odd elbow in the ribs.
“There’s a few bets been placed in the Castres’ changing rooms,” Gray continues. “I am maybe a little more familiar than the others guys will be with the environment and a couple of the players so in that way you look forward to it a bit more.”
Now in his second season at Castres, Gray will obviously hope to keep his club playing top class rugby because relegation would almost certainly mean packing his bags again and heading elsewhere. It’s not impossible that the prospect of playing alongside his brother Jonny could lure him back to Glasgow, which would be a statement of intent after losing Niko Matawalu and Sean Maitland. But whatever the fate of his club, Gray insists that his stint in France has improved him as a player and that France are likewise much improved from their dismal showing in the summer.
“I think my physicality has improved,” Gray claims, “just because week in and week out you are going up against some pretty big men and if you don’t front up you are going to get run over, so I think I’ve improved in that regard.
“I think they [France] have made improvements over the autumn Tests. They got a very good win over Fiji and they obviously beat Australia, who are a top side and they came close but didn’t manage a win against Argentina, so they have improved from their Six Nations performances and their summer tour. They are a nation who will have a lot of confidence going in as well.”
But are French heads still liable to drop if things don’t go their way?
“Yeah, I think a lot of teams have it, but maybe more so with the French. When the crowd gets behind them and they do something well they grow and they grow and they get better and better. But if you can stop them, stop what they want to do and silence the crowd it works against them even more and they maybe start forcing things and things go to ground.
“We are expecting the first 20 minutes, a passionate crowd, the opening of the Six Nations, they are going to come flying out the blocks and we will need to weather the storm and continue to put pressure on them and maybe if we can do that you’ll see the crowd silenced a bit.”
Gray can be reasonably sure of a place in the starting XV after impressing in tandem with “little” brother Jonny in November. The front row question mark will be the No 3 shirt with Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford impressing for Edinburgh in the other two places. The veteran Euan Murray will probably start over Geoff Cross since the Wales’ match falls on a Sunday (Murray will be unavailable) so Cross will be called upon. The French loosehead Alexandre Menini is not renowned as a scrummager so the scrums should be a more even battle than some fear.
The breakaways will likely be Blair Cowan, Rob Harley and the only No 8 still standing Johnnie Beattie. The half-back pairing from November is likely to continue while Vern Cotter will presumably start two from three, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar, in the midfield with the latter nailed down and the others fighting to keep him company.
The probable back three of Stuart Hogg, if his hamstring allows, Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser has the potential to do a bit of damage presuming, of course, that Richie Gray can repeat the performance of 2011 and win them some ball.