RICHIE Gray has pulled himself out of Sale’s LV= Cup match against the Scarlets this afternoon in order to ensure he is fresh for Scotland’s opening RBS Six Nations match at Twickenham next weekend.
The 23-year-old lock was initially named on the bench by Sale yesterday morning, with his Scottish squad-mates Richie Vernon and Alasdair Dickinson both starting for the Sharks, as Scotland’s ongoing difficulty in having exiled players rested before the Six Nations continues.
However, Gray this week shook off a minor injury niggle and, while passed fully fit for action, he told the coaches that he would not be comfortable going straight back into the fray this weekend with the Six Nations looming. Sale are coached by Steve Diamond and former Scotland skipper Bryan Redpath and they agreed to Gray’s wishes and swiftly replaced him yesterday morning. Vernon and Dickinson will play against the Welsh side, however, with the expectation being that they will not start for Scotland against England next week, but potentially be on the bench. Gray is expected to start at Twickenham and his decision to step down does allow a fellow Scot, Fraser McKenzie, to come back into the Sale squad after a recent injury.
Kelly Brown, who is widely tipped to be named officially as Scotland’s Six Nations captain on Monday, sits out Saracens’ LV= Cup match with Cardiff tomorrow, as do second row Jim Hamilton from Gloucester’s game with Northampton and prop Euan Murray from Worcester’s clash with London Irish, but Bath start fly-half Tom Heathcote in their match with Exeter this afternoon.
It again raises the practicality of the IRB’s regulation nine which is designed to address the conflict between clubs and national sides, to ensure that international players are released to play. The RFU have struck an agreement with the English clubs to ensure that all players Stuart Lancaster wishes to be released this weekend are, and so they will all rest up for the Calcutta Cup match.
The England coach has released from his training squad Alex Goode and Ben Foden among others, because he wishes them to pick up game-time after recent lay-offs with injury or, in the case of players such as Saracens lock Mourtitz Botha, because he does not plan to include them in his squad for Twickenham next week.
The RaboDirect PRO12 league organisers have responded to the tilting of the balance in England’s favour by scrapping their league fixtures in the weekend before the Six Nations to ensure all three Celtic nations and Italy have the opportunity to rest players before launching into seven weeks of Test matches. There is no agreement with clubs in England and France and so while they play in league or cup matches they continue to select non-England squad players. But Scotland head coach Scott Johnson and his assistants Dean Ryan and Steve Scott – ex-coaches at Gloucester and Sale respectively – have been busy speaking to their counterparts in England and France in an effort to persuade them to rest key Scots, with some success.
So while Alasdair Strokosch, the Scotland flanker, started last night for Perpignan in the French Top 14, against Clermont Auvergne, Montpellier agreed to drop Johnnie Beattie to the bench for their league game with Agen after he recovered from a wrist injury sustained in last weekend’s Heineken Cup win over Toulon. Centre/wing Max Evans was not included at all in Castres’ squad for their match at Bayonne on Thursday night.
With 26 of Johnson’s 35-man training squad playing with Glasgow or Edinburgh, the vast majority of Scotland’s squad will be taking it easy this weekend and it is likely that those being rested elsewhere, notably Brown, Beattie, Hamilton, Gray and Murray, will form key components in Scotland’s bid to wrest the Calcutta Cup back from England after a five-year absence.