Milestones should be celebrated, yet the man with 51 Scotland caps who, incredibly, could feasibly be referred to as a “veteran” at the mere age of 25, has his mind on the future and pushing on to become the truly world-class lock so many believe is within his grasp.
For a second-rower, as much as any rugby player, going forwards is the driving force – in lineout, ruck, maul, carry...and career. But Gray is willing to indulge in a bit of retrospection ahead of a century of appearances for his home city club. As an academy prospect he came off the bench in a 23-14 win for Glasgow in the 1872 Cup clash against Edinburgh at Scotstoun on 21 December, 2012. And it was Gregor Townsend, then Warriors coach now Scotland boss, who gave him that tap on the shoulder.
“I was very nervous. I remember when Gregor told me – I couldn’t believe it. I went across the road to the cafe and took in what had been said,” recalled Gray.
“It was a dream come true to be a professional rugby player and represent the club where I’m from. It meant so much to my family and friends and I couldn’t be prouder. I’d obviously seen my brother [Richie] come through here, I was coming through the academy just as he was leaving [to Sale Sharks in 2012]. It’s flown by.” Gray, pictured below, had been the recipient of the fruitful John Macphail rugby scholarship in the summer of that year, and in 2013 he signed a three-year contract with Glasgow, which has since been extended to the end of the 2019-20 season. He has gone on to be Scottish rugby’s Mr Dependable, the tackle king, and brought up a half-century of Test caps in his quarter-century of years, but he is the first to admit he has lots to work on.
This season has been hampered by a shoulder injury. Gray was dropped by Scotland during the Six Nations and was on the bench in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup trouncing by Saracens. Scott Cummings’ head injury after 15 minutes saw Gray straight back in the fray and likely to start tonight.
“You want to do as best as you can for the team and you respect the coaches’ decisions,” said Gray about that rare benching at the weekend. “The way the guys have been playing when [Scotland] guys have been away they were deserving. I just do what I can for the team. I love this club. It’s where I’m from and you want to do it proud in any way you can.”
He didn’t make the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour but, for all the critics who say he lacks that X-factor you get from an Alun Wyn Jones or Paul O’Connell type of lock forward, Gray is fully aware that he is a work in progress.
“Every game I’ve played, and in training, you’re always evaluating,” he said. “You sit down with coaches and players and look at where you can improve. You look at other players too in your position. Just the way the game goes, there are a lot of things I need to work on but at the same time keep enjoying playing. There are so many areas [I could improve on], in defence, attack. I know that’s pretty vague! But just across the board.”
As a Glasgow boy, Gray admitted that Saturday’s hammering at Saracens did cut deep, but he is now looking forward to pushing on in the Guinness Pro14 run-in.
“We wanted to go a stage further than we had before in that tournament,” he said. “The biggest thing when you lose for Glasgow is you feel you’ve let a lot of people down and that’s the worst feeling. Especially the fans who come from all over to watch us. You get to meet them and they’re great people. You want to do them proud. The whole squad feels that. You represent the whole city when you play here and they drive us a lot.”
Undaunted by last weekend’s setback, however, he added: “There is a massive belief in the squad, and the togetherness, and we have to look at what has just happened at the weekend, and stick together, because we know against Ulster it’s going to be a big challenge. They’re very physical, they can score from anywhere and are obviously very well coached by [former Glasgow and Scotland forwards coach] Dan [McFarland], so it’s going to be a challenge. We need to move on quick.”
Big brother Richie, 29, remains alive in the Heineken Champions Cup after he continued his storming comeback in Toulouse’s thrilling 22-21 win over Finn Russell’s Racing 22. “I thought it was great,” said his brother. “After a tough couple of years for him I couldn’t be prouder. Hopefully he can go on further.”