Ritchie Gray to make up for agony of Scotland exit

AS A nearby team-mate chuckles in the background, Richie Gray smiles and theatrically hums and haws when asked if he is 
enjoying Scotland’s training camp in the French Pyrenees.

The pain is etched on the face of Richie Gray as the second row finds it tough during training at Scotlands World Cup camp in France. Picture: SNS Group

The 6ft 10in peroxide blond second row is as laid-back off the pitch as he is a fearsome competitor on it and, when picking the type of characters who would relish a night in the wilds with commandos and those who might not so much, you would definitely put Gray in the latter category.

Speaking to The Scotsman earlier this week in Font Romeu, the 25 year old, who is going into the final year of a three-year contract with nearby Castres, had just about recovered from the long, cold night up a mountain and, following the contemplative pause, admitted there was some enjoyment and benefits to be taken from the experience. “Yes of course there is,” he said. “Everyone has worked hard and I’m sure we’ll see the gains in a couple of weeks. But at the moment it’s pretty tough going.”

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After an arm tendon injury against Wales in the Six Nations effectively ended Gray’s season, he accepts that a good block of conditioning is just what he needs. He returned to the bench for Castres’ final Top 14 game last May but was an unused replacement as they were thumped 53-10 by Racing 92 to bring the curtain down on a miserable season for the club, who narrowly avoided relegation two years from winning the title and a year after finishing runners-up.

“I wouldn’t say fitness-wise I’m 100 per cent, but the body is okay,” reported Gray. “There’s lots of work to put in.”

There were reports that the Scot could have been offloaded a year early by Castres if they had gone down, but that has been clarified now and Gray is looking forward to a fresh start under new coach Christophe Urios, who has arrived from Oyonnax, once the World Cup is over. That injury in the defeat by Wales in February was a disappointing setback, but, with the World Cup looming on the horizon, the next focus was pretty clear. Gray has been waiting four years to put right the agony of Auckland, when defeat by England eliminated Scotland at the pool stage for the first time in World Cup history.

“It has been a big target to look ahead to,” said Gray. “The World Cup is a special event – the biggest in a player’s career. You really want to be on that stage, representing your country and doing them proud.

“A lot of us were involved in the last one and were disappointed with how that turned out. There is a real desire to rectify that this time around.”

Although it was the 16-12 loss to this year’s hosts at Eden Park which confirmed the Scots’ early exit, it is the previous match which still rankles with Gray, who featured in all four pool games as a 21 year old in New Zealand. Scotland held a 12-6 lead going into the latter stages of that tight battle with the Pumas in Wellington, knowing a win would take them through, but a late converted try gave Argentina a one-point lead and Dan Parks sliced a last-ditch drop-goal attempt wide.

Gray said: “The thing that will always stand out for me about 2011 was that Argentina game, where I think we played pretty well. We were ahead, deserved to win and get through to the quarters, but we were a missed drop goal away and that’s how rugby goes sometimes.”

Gray is confident that Scotland will start this year’s tournament in England with more intensity and be able to build more momentum going into the crunch games.

He said: “We’ve got four warm-up games, so I don’t think there will be any chance of us not being well prepped.”

Now 25, Gray has gone from the young tyro who had the French crowd cheering him to the Stade de France rafters for a cavalier display four years ago, to one of the more established and high-profile members of the squad. However, the only Scot to feature in the last British and Irish Lions Test series as a late replacement in the final win over the Wallabies in Sydney does not feel he is at the senior mentoring stage just yet.

He explained: “If a young guy wants to ask me something or needs a bit of advice, then I’d be more than happy to give it. But they seem to be doing fine. There were a lot of young boys involved in that Glasgow [Pro12] final, so they have matured beyond their years and know how to handle themselves.”

One of those is younger brother Jonny Gray, who has enjoyed a stellar season and his elder sibling has watched with great pride. “I was hugely proud of Jonny and the way he really grew as a player throughout the season,” said Gray, who left Glasgow for Sale in 2012. “What an achievement. Not many Scottish players can say they’ve won a league title, it’s incredible. I’m proud of all of them and it’s great to see all the Glasgow boys here coming into the camp brimming with confidence and, hopefully, that will rub off on to the rest of the squad.”