Jonny Gray will make his first Glasgow Warriors appearance of the season against the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein tonight having been declared fit again after undergoing wrist surgery during the summer. The initial prognosis at the end of June was that the 35-times capped second-row would be out of action for between four and six months, but he has exceeded expectations with his recovery by making it back in just over three months.
Not only are the Warriors boosted by the prospect of having the talismanic 23-year-old back in the engine room for the start of their European Champions Cup campaign, which kicks off with a daunting away trip to Exeter Chiefs next Saturday night, but it is also good news for Scotland.
Gray now has five weeks to get fully match fit for the start of Scotland’s Autumn Test series against Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.
“It’s great to have Jonny back. He is pretty excited. He was keen to come back last week but we want to make sure his body is alright, especially around contact,” said Warriors head coach Dave Rennie yesterday.
“He is hugely important with his leadership as a former captain. I have really noticed his influence from a line-out perspective over the last few days as well. There is no doubt he is a bit of a talisman for this group and guys will follow him. He has a big role to play in supporting Ryan [Wilson] as captain.”
“We want to get some combinations going before we play the Chiefs next week. We have a strong side on the field even although we have rested Scott Cummings and Lee Jones – who have started every game including our two trial matches. Jonny may not play 80 minutes but will certainly be tested at altitude. He’s been working hard for a lot of weeks, jumping out of his skin, so we’re excited to have him in there.”
Scotland hooker Fraser Brown also returns to the starting XV after making his first appearance of the season off the bench during last week’s victory over Benetton, and with Rennie stating that Stuart Hogg (who had shoulder surgery after returning home from the Lions tour) should be back in the frame in a couple of weeks, the strength in depth of this squad is really beginning to show its value.
That’s despite still having players of the calibre of centres Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, wingers Rory Hughes and Lelia Masaga, prop Oli Kebble and back-row Samuela Vunisa unavailable at the moment.
The Warriors might be the only unbeaten team in any of Europe’s top three leagues, but Rennie says his boys are going to have their work cut out making it six successes from six league games so far this season when they play their first-ever match in South Africa, against a Cheetahs side which has come out on top in each of their last three outings – all at home, against Zebre, Leinster and the Ospreys.
“They are a big side. Discipline is going to be key because they are going to try to put us in the corners and their driving line-out is the best in the competition,” added Rennie. “We will need to look after the ball because they have so much pace out wide they can punish you. If we do those things, we are a fit side and I am confident we can deal with the altitude. We need to look after the ball and build some pressure, that is key.”
This match is the second instalment of a double-header at the Toyota Stadium this evening, with the Free State Cheetahs taking on the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup at 6pm. Also, as part of a “spring holiday special”, supporters are being charged only 20 rand (£1.12) for an open stand ticket, while students and kids are being given free access.
The attendance for the Cheetahs’ first home match of their Pro14 era against Zebre was 13,982, dropping to 6,980 against Leinster and to 4,589 last Friday against the Ospreys – which doesn’t look great in a 46,000-seater stadium.
Cut-price ticketing is one way of tackling a worrying trend, but the battle to win over a clearly sceptical South African public is going to take much more than that.
The fact this is likely to be exciting back-three player and Springbok hopeful Sergeal Petersen’s last match for the Cheetahs, before joining Super Rugby franchise the Stormers in Cape Town in November, does not help reinforce the credibility of the Pro14’s South African experiment.