Richie Gray explains why AB Zondagh can offer a point of difference for Scotland

Richie Gray has given a ringing endorsement to AB Zondagh’s appointment as Scotland’s attack coach and has backed the South African to bring innovation to the national side.

Richie Gray playing for Glasgow Warriors against Newcastle. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS

The Scotland forward worked with Zondagh at Toulouse who enjoyed phenomenal success last season, winning a French championship and European Champions Cup double.

Gray, who left Toulouse to rejoin Glasgow Warriors last summer, thinks recruiting the 35-year-old is a shrewd move by head coach Gregor Townsend.

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Zondagh cut his teeth as a coach with the Sharks in Natal before making the move to French rugby, initially as a consultant with Toulouse and then as assistant coach.

Richie Gray in action for Glasgow Warriors against Newcastle Falcons, his first experience of playing in front of fans at Scotstoun. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS

“AB was there for around two years when I was there,” said Gray. “He came over as skills coach and was coaching the academy boys as well. He’s a very good coach who did a lot of things I’d never seen before in terms of skill development.

“He was highly respected as you saw with the Toulouse youngsters coming through. He was at the heart of that. So I think it’s a very good appointment by Scottish Rugby.

“He’ll offer something a little bit different. He’s got a lot of experience from his time in South Africa with the Sharks and obviously Toulouse too so he’ll be able to bring elements of that to Scotland. Hopefully he can add little things that we can improve on.

“He’s a great guy, very personable. I got on really well with him.”

Richie Gray says he is raring to go for the new season with Glasgow Warriors. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS

Gray enjoyed a highly successful spell at Toulouse which culminated in his helping the club win the French championship by beating Clermont in the Top 14 final in 2019.

Having forced his way back into the national squad last season after a three-year absence, Gray will hope to be reunited with Zondagh when Scotland gather to prepare for the Autumn Nations Series next month. Gray played his part in the historic win at Twickenham in February and then featured in the narrow home defeat by Wales the following week. He was also in the squad to face France in Paris only for the match to be postponed due to a Covid outbreak in the French camp.

Injury then intervened and Gray sat out the remainder of the Six Nations. While pleased to re-establish him in the Scotland side, the lock felt his first season back home was something of a “mixed bag”. A concussion sustained against the Ospreys in October ruled him out of most of the first half of the season, causing him to miss Scotland’s autumn Tests as well as a number of Glasgow fixtures.

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AB Zondagh is joining the Scotland coaching team after spells with the Sharks in South Africa and Toulouse in France. Picture: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

Commanding performances in the back-to-back fixtures against Edinburgh in January sealed his return to the national squad but an injury against Leinster in Dublin on the day Scotland were originally meant to face France was a setback.

“I managed to get in for the start of the Six Nations. And beating England away was decent. I thoroughly enjoyed that,” said Gray.

“But it was a bit of a mixed bag overall last season, some good points and some low points. It’s about addressing that and becoming more consistent throughout the season which we’re looking to do this year.

“I came off against Leinster. It wasn’t actually a head knock in the end but given my previous they just decided to be extra cautious which I have no issues with. It was the smart thing to do. The timing of it was just unfortunate.

Richie Gray, front row far right, helped Toulouse win the French Top 14 final in 2019, beating Clermont.

“But I’m raring to go now. I feel great. I don’t know if that’s because it’s a short pre-season but I actually feel a lot better for it.”

Gray looked fresh during his 50-minute outing in Glasgow’s first pre-season game against Newcastle last Friday and is looking forward to taking on Worcester away this Friday. The Newcastle game was notable for the return of supporters for a Warriors home game for the first time in 18 months and was especially memorable for Gray.

“It was great to get back out at Scotstoun on a Friday night in front of fans,” he said. “It was my first experience of that and I absolutely loved it. I can’t wait until we get back here again.

“I only played at Firhill in my first spell so I hadn’t experienced Scotstoun with a crowd before. It had a feeling of my first time there so I’m looking forward to doing it again soon.”

At 32, Gray is one of the senior figures in the Glasgow dressing room and has gone out of his way to help the youthful second rows at the club. The 67-cap Scotland man knows that the day will come when he is replaced by the young guns but is happy to lend his considerable experience, mindful of the way the likes of Al Kellock helped him when he was coming through the ranks.

“It’s always part of the process that the young guys come through and it’s great for the club. It has to happen and we want it to happen,” said Gray. “There’s a good blend of youngsters with a few of us older guys still kicking about as well. Our squad is looking pretty strong, we’ve got more depth.”

Locks Alex Samuel and Max Williamson have both been name-checked by coach Danny Wilson as ones to watch and Gray has been impressed by the pair.

“Both are good, big second rows who complement each other well. Max is more of a big lump and Alex is one of those lineout forwards.

“I did a lot of work with him at the tail end of last year and he has a lot of potential. It’s about sharing your experience and helping these guys as much as you can. But at the same time you’ve got to hang on to your spot so you can’t give them too much!”

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