Glasgow Warriors v Exeter: Gray brothers clash for first time - but it's just not Richie and Jonny who know each other well
Fraternal rivalry will be to the fore at Scotstoun this evening as Richie and Jonny Gray play against each other for the first time professionally.
The brothers – lock forwards for Glasgow and Exeter respectively – clearly know each other better than any other two players who will be involved in the Champions Cup Pool A game. But given the frequency of meetings between the teams in recent seasons, not to mention the added involvement of two other Scotland internationals for the Chiefs in Stuart Hogg and Sam Skinner, the squads could be forgiven for feeling that the whole game represented something akin to the latest round of a long-running family feud.
Hogg just failed to have the final word in the argument the last time the teams met at Scotstoun, as his 80th-minute, long-range penalty attempt came crashing back off the bar. The Warriors emerged with a well-deserved 31-31 draw from that game in January 2020, but it was an altogether different story when the sides clashed at Sandy Park this time last season as Exeter cruised to a crushing 42-0 win.
Today’s match will in fact be the sixth fixture between the teams in the past five seasons, and the story of the head-to-heads has been one of increasing domination by the Chiefs. Hence the importance of the individual head-to-head in the boiler room, because if Glasgow are to upset the form book against the former European champions they will need to start gaining the upper hand where the fight is at its fiercest.
Jonny Gray, it should be said, is in outstanding form right now, having scored a hat-trick of tries in his team’s 42-6 win over Montpellier last week. At 27, the Exeter lock is five years younger than his brother, whom he has overshadowed in recent years. But Glasgow coach Danny Wilson, for one, is confident that his own player still has a lot to offer, and believes that some aspects of his game have become stronger than ever since he returned to Scotland last year after seven seasons in France.
“I didn’t actually know that they haven’t played against each other before, so it’s quite an interesting twist to the game, isn’t it?,” Wilson said yesterday. “They’re different players if we’re honest – they’re not identical in the way they go about the game.
“First and foremost, Richie is an outstanding lineout forward on both sides of the ball.
“You need turnover ball these days because defences are so well organised. Now he’s a source of lineout turnover, so he gives us the ability to win a ball we’re not expected to win, and then play against a defence that is not ready. So he’s big on that for us.
“His kick-off work is excellent, and he hits 25 to 30 rucks effectively per game, and he’s got better at that since coming back to us. Last week we saw him take a couple of collisions in defence and rip the ball out of somebody’s arms for another turnover.
“So he brings those massive parts to his game. He probably doesn’t carry as much as his brother - I don’t think he’d mind me saying that. But those other areas are important, and he also brings a wealth of experience. He’s a quiet man but leads by example.”
The pool stage of the Champions Cup is a relatively benign environment at present, with eight teams going through to the knockout stages from each of the two groups of a dozen. On paper, then, Glasgow could lose today yet still qualify by winning their remaining two games, but realistically, after losing 20-13 in La Rochelle last week, they need something better than another performance which, no matter how plucky, produces only a losing bonus point.
Wilson believes that battling Exeter to a physical standstill up front is a prerequisite of victory, and to that end he has gone for a six-two split on the bench. And, while memories of that last meeting in the south-west of England continue to cause disquiet, he also believes that his squad is in a far better frame of mind – and perhaps of body too – than they were then.
“It was an extremely tough time for us,” he recalled of that game in December 2020. “It doesn’t bring back good memories, so we haven’t talked a huge amount about it, but I think it is on everyone’s mind that the last time we played them we came up well short and didn’t really fire a shot.
“We’re going into this game in a better place. We had a good win against the Dragons [in the URC], a decent performance against La Rochelle – when we lost but there was a lot of positives to take out of that game – so now we’ll see how we go against Exeter.
“Exeter have obviously grown over the last whatever number of years to become their league champions and the European champions in 2020. They’ve built that slowly over time, they’ve built it from within, and we’ve got full respect for what they’ve done. But at the same time, they’re coming to our place – we didn’t get a chance to play them at home last year. So I’m hoping that makes a big difference to our boys and the game in general.”
It should certainly make some sort of difference. Whether it is big enough to propel the Warriors to a potentially season-defining victory remains to be seen.