Ever since he wowed the crowd at the Stade de France in 2011, Richie Gray has been tagged as the next great player to come out of Scotland – without ever quite delivering.
One encouraging sign from this season, however, culminating in last weekend’s all-action display only five days after arriving in Japan for the two-Test series, has been that with his brother alongside him, Gray is now living up to all that potential.
Fittingly, since it was France that saw his first blossoming, it is France that is turning into his finishing school. Not only that, says Nathan Hines, the 77-cap former lock who is a specialist coach with the national side, but Gray’s imminent move to Toulouse, one of the few clubs with the stature to fit his giant frame, is going to make him even better. In fact, says Hines, the whole move to France. Has been one reason for Gray’s recent flourish in form: “I think he is still getting better, the last year has been one of his best,” says Hines. “We saw some good stuff from Richie during the Six Nations.
“He played well at the weekend after playing 80 minutes on the Sunday before [Castres v Montpellier in the wild-card Top14 play-off] then flying out here, having limited preparation time and still being jetlagged in the heat. I think there is still development to come from Richie. Going to Toulouse, where there good players, will be good for him. At Glasgow and Sale and Castres he was leaned upon as being ‘the’ second row, but in Toulouse he will be in a group where there are other players of his calibre. That is going to help him because they will be more rigour in the group.”
It may also help keep him fresh. At Castres, where he has just come to the end of his contract, he played in just about every match when he was available. At Toulouse, there is far more scope for rotation and rest, so the odd weekend can only be good for a player who enjoys his rugby but scarcely lives for it.
Gray is bound to be a key player against Japan, who have nobody to match his 6ft 10in, 20stone frame. In the first Test, he was one of the go-to players as Scotland tried to bully their way through Japan. Though the tactic was over-used, one reason for that was seeing just how effective he was proving to be.
“If he’s not really fanatical about rugby then France is pretty good for him,” added Hines who spent two spells in the country, first with Perpignan and later with Clermont Auvergne. “They are quite relaxed about things, but when it is rugby it is rugby. It’s not like the British environment where you do rugby all day, analysing stuff and everything else.
“With French teams, you can kind of come and do your rugby, but family time and everything else is separated. I think Richie quite enjoys that. For him the balance is right.
“I loved it. I think Richie has learned a lot from being there, being in that environment where it is confrontational all the time and it is more forward oriented. Ritchie has skills. He is an athlete and he can run and pass and do all sorts of stuff, but moving to France has helped to develop other aspects of his game.”
The other breakthrough for Richie Gray has been getting brother Jonny alongside him at Test level. Though younger, Jonny is the one calling the shots – a side effect of his more studious, intense personality – the combination certainly works.
“They communicate better because they are brothers and that makes a big difference,” Hines added. “They share rooms and like being together, which is a good thing. They’re not brothers who don’t like being with each other, which is a massive benefit for us.
“Apart from the individual development, no matter who you are, brothers or not, the more time you spend playing together the better you are going to be. I think it is good for us that A, they are brothers, and B they are in form and we can pair them together.”
The pair played a huge, and largely unremarked, part in Scotland’s first Test win. The line out was a source of nothing but trouble for Japan and the way the Scots handled not only it but the few home attempts to set up a rolling maul played its part in nullifying the forward threat from the Brave Blossoms.
A repeat in the second Test would go a long way to ensuring a repeat of the 26-13 scoreline in Scotland’s favour. Just as in France for Richie, Tokyo offers plenty of chances to get away from non-stop rugby. Which means he is all the more ready to turn it on when the call comes on Saturday.