Interview: Chris Gray, unsung hero of Scotland’s 1990 Grand Slam

Scotland lock Chris Gray with Paul Burnell in support during the famous 13-7 Calcutta Cup win over England in 1990 at Murrayfield which sealed the Grand Slam. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock
Scotland lock Chris Gray with Paul Burnell in support during the famous 13-7 Calcutta Cup win over England in 1990 at Murrayfield which sealed the Grand Slam. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock
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The elusive 15th name, the piece of the jigsaw most likely to get lost down the back of the sofa and the man many forget about – although the other 14 immortals never will – can be found at home near Nottingham on his day off from drilling teeth.

Once upon 30 years ago this fellow drilled into rucks while Scotland’s rugby opponents whinged about there always being someone in dark blue lurking with intent in a blatantly offside position. This fellow with his ordinary-sounding name was unshowy but vital, unspectacular but indispensable, and much admired by the dog-whistle discerners of the oval ball game who spot things that the rest of the crowd can 
easily miss.

He’s the 1990 Grand Slammer who isn’t one of the cherubic brothers or the Great White Shark or the headbanded leader or the guy who scored the try against England. He isn’t the winger with roots in the Ukraine, the Kilted Kiwi, force-of-nature Fin or lorryman Gary. He isn’t from the more conspicuous front row; isn’t Derek White, even more conspicuous on account of the blond hair; and isn’t Craig Chalmers, more conspicuous still being the stand-off.

Give yourself a coconut, as they used to say, if you guessed Chris Gray. Though he stands at 6ft 5ins he has got used to being overshadowed and so took the greater celebrity of team-mates in his stride. For the last 34 years he’s lived and worked as a dentist in “the back of beyond” and far from where Scottish rugby is traditionally debated and revered – and where Nottingham Forest legend Brian Clough looms over all other sporting achievers. Now Gray’s sons Jamie and Nick, who’ve both grown up to be players, have shot past the height markings on the kitchen door and are looming over their old man.

Never mind, Jim Telfer always rated him. “The engine of the ’90 team,” affirmed the coach, “the unsung hero.” Hang on, though, Creamy’s Creamy – the biggest ball-breaker there’s ever been. Does this mean Gray was teacher’s pet? Not likely, he says with a chuckle. “I remember the day I was going to clock him. He’d just beasted some poor sod and I didn’t think that was right. But Fin [Finlay Calder] stopped me: ‘Christ, man,’ he said, ‘you cannae do that!’”

Sixty this year, Gray locked arms in the team with Damian Cronin, the more prominent member of the second row. Cronin’s difference of opinion with the management was certainly more prominent, the player grabbing Telfer in the dressing room in Paris the year before the Slam and popping him on a coat-peg. Happy days. But our man suffers no inferiority complex, nor minds that others from the XV are more commonly mentioned in 
despatches.

He says: “That’s a lovely accolade from Jim but my job wasn’t going to get me noticed and I was perfectly happy – no, thrilled – to be doing it. The job was to hit rucks, to tackle hard, to win the ball so the backs could go and play. I could handle the ball, I wasn’t scared of it coming towards me, but in the second row you don’t always get that chance. So you go into those dark and dingy places and try to set up the flair guys. I was in awe of that team. I’d look at it sometimes and go ‘They’re brilliant’, almost forgetting I was a member, too. I loved every minute of playing for Scotland and to get the right result 30 years ago was just 
fantastic.”

We’re in Beeston where the roll-call of town notables includes actors Richard Beckinsale from Porridge and Barry “Van der Valk” Foster plus fashion designer Paul Smith and disco hollerer Edwin Starr. Gray, who speaks with a Midlands burr and says “Bloody Nora!” a lot, played 22 times for Scotland, including all of the Slam and all of the following year’s World Cup, while his club games came for Edinburgh Accies and Nottingham. In the home he shares with his wife Judith – “I married the Nottingham physio and took some ribbing for that” – there are sketches of Gray in action, poses drawn by his mother Sheila who still lives in Dunbar where he grew up.

He laughs: “I remember Mum coming to a game and during a lineout asking Dad: ‘Why are they standing opposite each other?’ He’d shake his head and go: ‘A ticket’s wasted on this woman!’” This of course was back in the old lawless days of lineouts. “Sometimes I’d wonder why I couldn’t jump. Then I’d notice that the big brute alongside had his hand in my pocket or was standing on my foot.” No issues like that now; Health & Safety have got involved.

Gray’s father, Bill, who died 12 years ago, worked in computers, a job which briefly took the family to Nottingham when Gray was a tot. “I didn’t know this of course. Then when I moved here, Dad asked: ‘Have you been to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem?’ [Amid all the Nottingham boozers claiming Robin Hood frequented them, this is reputedly the world’s oldest pub]. That surprised me because Dad never drank.”

I take it abstemiousness runs in the family, him being an amateur rugby player and all that? “Yes of course not!” He has a confession to make: his name is Christopher Antony Gray and he used to be addicted to wine gums. “There was a sweet shop on the walk home from school which was fatal. All that sugar made me chubby and resulted in plenty of fillings. I used to dread trips to the dentist so it’s funny I became one.”

The job has changed over the years and at Gray’s practice now they do a lot more cosmetic work. What a bunch of narcissists we’ve become, I say, and he smiles: “As a country we didn’t used to whiten our teeth when America did but now we do. Kids didn’t used to want braces because they’d get called ‘Metal Mickey’ but now they feel left out if they’re not wearing them. As someone who didn’t look after his teeth properly I’ve become a bit of a zealot about it. But we shouldn’t get carried away with this idea of perfection. Sometimes a mother will ask me to ‘fix’ their child’s smile and I’ll find the kid has no issue with it.”

So was he ever required to perform emergency dentistry during his rugby games? “Once. This chap’s mouth was in a bad way. ‘You’d better come up to the surgery,’ I said, which I thought was a decent gesture. My team-mates said it was the least I could do as I was the one who’d clobbered him. I don’t remember doing it!”

Football had been Gray’s sport until big brother Laurence came back from Gordonstoun with an egg. “‘We’re playing rugby now,’ he said. ‘Oh, ok,’ I said, and that was that.” Gray went up to the Prince of Wales’ seat of learning later, so did he share HRH’s impressions of “Colditz in kilts”? “I didn’t. I enjoyed Gordonstoun, it didn’t do me any harm, although I see how if you didn’t get into the culture of the place it could be pretty unforgiving. There wasn’t a big problem with bullying. If someone in your house was getting a tough time from outside then even if you didn’t especially like the guy you went to his aid. Sport was massive, of course. You went out to compete for your house but if you didn’t win you needn’t bother coming back.”

In 1984 Gray watched on a clubhouse TV as Scotland won only their second-ever Slam and, given there had been a 59-year gap between the two, wasn’t anticipating the chance of a third during his time in the game, or even that he’d be involved. “Then suddenly I got my letter from the SRU and instead of a sub’s number like 16 or 18 in the bottom right-hand corner there was 4. Bloody Nora!” His debut the year before glory came against Wales at Murrayfield. “I always got changed in the corner of the dressing room, don’t ask me why, but with Scotland there were rules and customs and I was in a different place. Bloody Nora! I always liked to run out last but JJ [John Jeffrey] said: ‘No, that’s me.’” The win flashed by in an instant. A fortnight later came the 12-12 draw at Twickenham when England dubbed Scotland “scavengers” which must have variously irked, amused but also encouraged the backroom schemers Ian McGeechan and especially Telfer.

How did Gray first encounter the great oxy-acetylene oracle of Scottish rugby? “When I got a letter inviting me to a training session in Melrose. I was in Nottingham in the middle of the country – how was I going to be there? Other guys were coming up from London. There was nothing else for it: I had to be there.” That session was a killer, as were many subsequent ones. Gray came to understand they needed to be like that, if Scotland with their vastly inferior resources and numbers were going to compete with England, possibly beat them. “The model for us, I think, was the Otago pack when they’d rucked the Lions off the field. Jim had studied their forwards as a smaller unit, their body positions and angles and how they’d created fast ball. He had his vision and he pursued it. Maybe, looking from the outside, he seemed to go too far with some of the guys, but I understood what he was trying to do. I must confess I quite liked the lack of sympathy he’d sometimes display, I quite liked his sadistic streak.” If Gray wasn’t such an amiable fellow you might say: spoken like a dentist.

“Now and again Jim would blow up but that would be borne of frustration because he wanted the best for Scottish rugby and believed with us it was achievable. He was proved right. The following year after the World Cup, which was the end of my international career, the team were heading for the pub. ‘Where are you going, boys?’ he said. ‘Right, wait for me.’ Jim was coming to the pub? This hadn’t happened before but it was great to have him there with us.” Timing was everything for the ’90 Slammers –they knew when to hit the bar and the conclusion to a tournament, rather than the beginning which has brought turmoil to the current team, was the right moment. “And that night I remembered back to the dressing room after we’d beaten England the year before, Jim sitting in silence, contented at last.”

Hang on, though, we’re not finished talking about ’90 yet (and in this anniversary year we’ve barely begun). In the winner-takes-all showdown with the Auld Enemy there had been an intriguing sub-plot for Gray: Nottingham captain (present), which was him, versus the Green & Whites skipper (past): Brian Moore, Mooro, Pitbull, the panto villain for Murrayfield then and a few times since. Gray obviously knows him better than most and says: “He did a lot for the English game and we’ve always got on well. Well, apart from when I became captain because he could be a real pain in the arse!”

In 2010 Moore revealed in his autobiography that, aged nine on a camping trip, he’d been abused by a teacher who was a member of the church and a family friend. “Before, he would be fighting in lineouts and monstering team-mates. I’d go: ‘Christ, Brian, he’s on our side – what the hell are you doing?’ But when that stuff came out we were like: ‘He was bottling everything up. There was a reason why he was like that.’” Famously, after losing the Slam, Moore kept a promise to accompany Gray to a post-Slam bash at the Watsonians club. “Good on him for that although he took a lot of stick. But he got his revenge the next time we played England and in the World Cup.”

Hang on, hang on … back to ’90 and the game of games. Gray, who by then had got the hang of filing on to the park in numerical order, was surprised to see Scott Hastings fidgeting like mad in his place. 
“Scotty looked demented. He needed to get out there.” During the anthems a bandsman’s sheet music blew away, landing near Gray. “I picked it for him, tried to put it the right way up. ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘now go and beat the bastards!’ I don’t think there had been an atmosphere like it before at Murrayfield, and there probably won’t be again. Usually the East Stand could be lively and the fans behind the goals would be giving it welly but the West Stand really only twitched. ‘Stuffy buggers,’ I’d say to myself. But that day the West got really quite excited.

“A lot’s been said down the years about the political dimension. My Nottingham team-mate Simon Hodgkinson who was full-back for England told me afterwards that his parents who were at the game had never experienced such hostile anti-Englishness. Against that, a friend – English – said he’d had the best night of his life in Edinburgh afterwards with not a hint of animosity.

“Maggie Thatcher? The poll tax? I don’t know about all that. In fact I’m going to be boring and say we were simply trying to win a rugby match. We’d been written off beforehand by the English pundits. We said to each other: ‘Boys, they reckon a hammering is coming our way. What should we do about it?’”

Gray says he’d hoped during the electric encounter to have enjoyed a full and frank exchange of views with Mooro – “But I couldn’t get near enough to thump him.” There was, he insists, a spat with Paul Ackford, each splatting the other, but I’m not sure I believe this. After all, it would simply have drawn attention to himself, rather than remaining wonderfully mysterious.