SCOTLAND’S lofty blond-haired totem Richie Gray declared himself ready to face New Zealand at Murrayfield on Sunday after winning a fitness race to make the starting line-up.
The 23-year-old made his first start for Scotland against New Zealand in 2010 and it proved to be a painful wake-up to the world of international rugby as Scotland scored first, but then conceded three tries in the opening quarter and were trounced 49-3. He now has the experience of 24 Test matches behind him, including more harsh lessons in the Six Nations and World Cup arenas, and the joy of beating South Africa and Australia.
Having headed south to Sale to make himself a tougher animal in the tighter style of play prevalent in England, he has not found much glory yet as Sale struggle at the foot of the table. They picked up a first win on Friday night, but he was still sidelined having been initially named in the side, which left Scotland coach Andy Robinson waiting until Tuesday before knowing Gray would be in his pack.
“I wasn’t ready last week,” said Gray. “I wasn’t fit enough to play on the Friday night but I have done a lot of rehab and I was able to get back into training this week. I am confident my ankle is okay. You can only play if you are fully fit and I wasn’t fully fit last week. My ankle wasn’t right, I wasn’t confident on it, but I’ve had a lot more time and given it time to heal. My last game was against Cardiff [in the Heineken Cup three weeks ago] which is not ideal but I have been doing a lot of work on my fitness and I’m ready for the challenge.”
Murrayfield two years ago is imprinted on his memory, but the 6ft 9in lock is confident that he and other young members of the squad are more able to cope with such a test, especially in the opening quarter.
“We need to assert ourselves, we know that, but we also know New Zealand will front up and it will be very tough. It’s a massive game on Sunday and I’ll be very pumped up by the time it arrives. The thing that stood out two years ago was the physicality of it all. They play a very fast-paced game and they don’t make many mistakes. They do the basics, under pressure, extremely well. But we’ve being doing a lot of analysis and there are areas where we believe we can get at them.”
A key area for Scotland will be around Gray in the lineout, where Jim Hamilton’s ability to vary the receivers and use himself, Gray and tail-gunner Kelly Brown, will provide the hosts with a platform to attack, off theirs, and potentially Kiwi ball.
Possession is key and Gray acknowledged his role, and the importance of his skills in the loose to provide momentum, but pointed also to the need for a top-class team display. “I always put pressure on myself and while I believe I have improved as a player I won’t put any added pressure on myself,” he added.
“We will win as a team. That is always the case and it won’t be any different against New Zealand. We have done a lot of analysis and we will be looking to put them under some pressure. But they are the No 1 team in the world and it will be difficult. We need to stick to our game plan and what we can do.”
It was tough going yesterday as Scotland put up Gray, Greig Laidlaw and defence coach Matt Taylor to speak to the media, and none shirked honest assessments of the strengths, and lack of weakness, in the opponents. It left New Zealand journalists questioning whether there was a defeatist mentality prevalent in the Scottish psyche, but Scots cannot win – thump the chest, as some did two years ago, and predict a win, and players tend to be laughed at or called disrespectful, be honest and admit the chances are slim and they are defeatist.
Taylor spoke of how there was no point in talking about magical solutions to beating the All Blacks, agreeing with one Kiwi journalist that some make the mistake of trying to take on New Zealand at their own game, with a fast and wide approach, only to come horribly unstuck as Ireland did in the summer, but adding that mirroring New Zealand’s fastidious application to doing the basics right, consistently, was a lesson to be heeded.
Asked how he would change the defence after a decade of performances in which the Scots have shipped an average of five tries per game against the All Blacks, Taylor said: “I don’t think you do anything differently really. You just have to do your fundamentals to the best of your ability, and that is tackle well, contest the ball well, have line-speed, be really good on your own ball because New Zealand are the best team in the world at turning you over and scoring, and they’re very good at their kick-returns and the way they attack when teams kick to them, so you have to be smart with how you kick, when you kick and who you’re kicking to.
“There’s no secret. It’s just doing the fundamentals well and to the best of your ability.”
Still, Taylor is changing the shape and technique of Scottish defence play, both with Glasgow and now with Scotland, bringing ideas he has developed in Super Rugby with Queensland. He is sympathetic to the problems of Scottish rugby, the relative lack of resources and far more intense development path that internationalists in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere must fight through en route to the top. By contrast, Scottish players are still developing their skills in the full glare of a Test spotlight.
But he has players with a rare spirit, exemplified by Laidlaw, a player small in stature but with a steely determination at the cornerstone of the win over Australia in horrendous weather even Scottish stand-offs do not enjoy. “You build the belief from within,” he said, shrugging off suggestions from journalists that Celtic’s shock win over Barcelona, or the success of Andy Murray and Sir Chris Hoy in the summer could provide inspiration. “It’s great when you see Scottish people do well on the world stage, but thinking about them is not going to help us win on Sunday afternoon. It’s about us being the best we can be on Sunday and going out there and getting the result that we want.” Simple really.