RYAN Grant hands you his mobile phone with a picture of a crocodile on it. “That’s Godzilla,” he says.
“And that’s me looking at him and what you can’t see is about five or six other crocodiles heading my way and my fiancée standing on the boardwalk saying ‘Hold it there, this’ll make a great picture’ and me getting slightly nervous and going, ‘Are you joking? This is not a photograph moment!’ Amazing things, crocodiles. This fella’s huge. How did we get on to this again?”
No idea, but it was worth lingering a while. The story goes like this. Grant meets Maxine. Maxine is the daughter of a crocodile farm owner in Zambia and the grand-daughter of Joe Brooks, who left Bo’ness as a young man and became one of his adopted land’s most famous crocodile hunters and protectors. Crocodilia is a fascination on the other side of his soon-to-be-extended family. A little trippy, but there you go. So we talk about crocodiles and then prop forwards and we say that sometimes, when games are rough, it can be bloody hard to tell the difference between the two.
We’re sitting in a room at Murrayfield that is dedicated to the memory of a Scottish hero of 1925, Robert Howie. On the wall there is a synopsis of his story. Howie had a history in propping, soldiering and a background in Kirkcaldy, all boxes that current Scotland loosehead Grant can tick. Howie also won a Grand Slam, played for the Lions and lived to the age of 93, which might prove a little harder to emulate.
He’s without a beard now, Grant. Shaved it off a few weeks back. It was during the slow retreat from London that he decided that the beard had to go, the sight of his mug on a security camera at Heathrow finally closing the deal. There he stood in his infinite weariness, just beaten up by England and now staring at himself on a monitor and thinking: ‘I look like a Saudi Arabian’. Soon enough the scissors came out. The scissors and then the scalpel.
The latter was for the dissection of what went wrong at Twickenham. Grant paints a picture of a group of players going through an honesty session to end all honesty sessions.
“We were desperate to sort it out. Desperate. We got bullied against England and, afterwards, we sat down and said ‘This doesn’t happen to us again’. We had a lot to prove against Italy. We had to prove that we’re not a team that can be bullied and it took that hiding from England to get us to that point.”
When the Scots looked at the DVD, the passiveness of the forwards stood out a mile, the lack of aggression, the fundamental absence of the kind of badness that you need against a pack such as England’s. Grant said: “What we lacked was somebody stepping up and smashing one of the English lads in the tackle and putting us on the front foot. We watched it and we were saying ‘What is missing here?’ And it was a lack of, I can’t say the word, but we’ll call it nastiness.”
Jim Hamilton used a different word.
“I know the word Jim used. I was trying to avoid using it.”
It’s not a nice word, but it’s the one he chose. Hamilton said that one of his main functions in the team was to be a bit of a “c***” to the opposition as they tried to win fast ball and secure an easy ride. That belligerence just wasn’t there against England.
“And he’s right. We lacked a bit of c*** in the team. You need players like that. Ireland is riddled with guys like that. They’ve plenty of them. And we have them, too. Jim is one, Bob Harley is another. We just needed a kick up the arse and we got it against England.”
During the past week, the Scottish players have had various discussions about how they are seen by other countries in the Six Nations. When the Irish and the Welsh and the French talk of this Scottish team what do they say?
“We spoke about how we’re perceived by other teams and the words ‘Same old’ came up a lot. ‘Same old Scotland’. And that’s exactly what we’ll be if we don’t front up against Ireland, we’ll be the team that got beat, then got a good result, then got beat again. We want to shake that off.”
This is their chance. As even the dogs in the street know, Ireland are missing eight first-team players as well as having a 21-year-old at stand-off – only just 21 at that – and another 21-year-old in the midfield. Grant has heard all about how weakened Ireland will be and he agrees that some stellar names are not going to be in their side today. But he’s talking about other warriors now, the streetwise operators who remain, the guys at the breakdown who are masterful at getting away with murder. Ireland have lost some of those characters but others have come in their place as if churned out in a factory of the crafty.
“I know about them. I’ve played against them many times. You can’t fault them for it because it’s only cheating if you get caught. I have huge respect for these boys. They’re great at playing on the edge. But we’ve got players who can do that, too. Bob [Harley] is a classic example. He’s like a machine. Batter him all day and he won’t stop. I like the way he plays rugby. Kelly [Brown] is the same. He’ll stick his head into anything. And we’ve got two hardy second rows as well. We’ve got to turn up with the same attitude we had against Italy. If we don’t win this weekend, we’re back at square one and we don’t want that.”
Grant knows all about square one, having spent so many years of his rugby life in the vicinity. He is 27 years old and has seven caps and that tells you something of the lost years in his career, years spent in the shadows at Edinburgh where coaches came and went like buses, leaving Grant behind at the stop. He’d given up soldiering to be a rugby player with the Borders, then switched to the capital. Before the salvation of his move to Glasgow he was ready to quit the game. He had a plan to go and join his family in the Middle East, where his father works for a construction company linked to an oil firm and where his brother was involved in emergency response for oil spills. It was his brother’s line of work that appealed to him. That’s still what he wants to do one day, when the rugby is finished. He’s in the second year of a three-year Open University degree in environmental science and his passion for the planet and what we’re doing to it – “the boys are going to give me such stick if they read this” – is strong.
“It’s such a beautiful place we live in and we’re single-handedly destroying it. I’ve always had an interest in the environment and the solar system. I find it all fascinating. I was reading an article the other day that predicted a minimum two-degree temperature rise in the planet by about 2060 and that’s catastrophic. If those ice caps melt into the Gulf Stream then the temperature of the ocean drops and the atmosphere temperature drops and, bang, we’re in an ice age. The rate the planet is heating up is incredible. We’ve never been here before. There are no records to tell us what’s going to happen next. People ask why are there tsunamis and other things. It’s our fault. That’s why it’s happening. History will tell us that there are points in history of great extinctions and we’re speeding that up.”
These are studies for another day. If Grant has a pretty good idea where he’s going in the future then he’s not daring to second-guess what might happen in the present. His has been a dramatic elevation, though. From benchwarmer at Edinburgh to vital cog at Glasgow and now a mainstay of the Scottish pack after only seven caps. You’ll hear plenty of chat about his Lions prospects, too. But not from him. A place on a Lions tour seems a million miles away, like the stuff of fantasy when all he wants to do is think about the reality of his rugby life, which comes today in green and white.
“They might be missing a few, but their team is full of class players. We play against these boys week in, week out in the Rabo and we know it’s going to be a tough, tough day at the office. It’s down to us. We want to be that word that Jim used. We have to be.
“There’s no other way.”