After his 19-year-old brother Jonny made his own Test debut a few months back, you have to pinch yourself to realise that it is four years since big brother Richie first set his size-13 feet on an international pitch, and fully six years since the big fella made his professional debut for Glasgow.
He seems to have crammed in several careers’ worth of experience since then. In his first season he helped Scotland beat Ireland at Croke Park and played with such unbridled athleticism at the Stade de France in 2011 that the Parisian crowd cheered him on. The lows have been more recent, such as the South Africa match last November when he carried the can for a first-half lineout meltdown that made for compelling viewing, but not in a good way. In between he has quit his hometown club, spent an largely unproductive year in Manchester with Sale Sharks, toured with the Lions and been snapped up by the French champions.
Despite their proud history, Castres is actually a tiny town of 40,000-odd souls. It’s not unusual for one quarter of the town’s population to watch a big match and, being so small, the club has to shout extra loud to make themselves heard – especially with Stade Toulousain operating just 50 miles down the N126. To put things in perspective, Castres winning the French Top 14 is a little like Yeovil winning England’s Premiership and they have a key Heineken match against Leinster this afternoon, which the French minnows would dearly love to win.
“We are preparing very well for this game,” says Gray from France. “It’s a very tough game. Leinster are a quality side with proven Europe pedigree so it’s a tough game for us. But, as things stand, we are still in this group and a win at the weekend will set us up very nicely so we’re preparing very well and we’ll be sure to give it our all.”
The big lock has never been entirely comfortable with all the attention he garners, from punters and press alike, but some level of ease is coming with age. If he is not exactly garrulous, the 24-year-old is now quite chatty and he retains that distinct Glasgow sense of humour, as dry as James Bond’s Martini. What hasn’t changed is his attitude to life because Gray remains a laid-back character, relaxed, unperturbed, at least on the surface, and, if it’s all an act, it’s a pretty convincing one. When asked how many times he has appeared for Castres this season he responds: “No idea!”. Players normally say nice things about the town and club they play for but in Gray’s case the French laissez-faire attitude off the field chimes with his own live-and-let-live personality.
“I suppose it’s a very nice way of life,” he says as if this were the first time he’s given the subject any thought. “I’m not too sure what the weather is like back home but right now it’s 15 degrees in Castres and the sun is shining so you can’t complain. I saw that they [Glasgow] had waterlogged pitches.
“Off the field, it’s nice and relaxing. Away from the rugby it’s the work hard, play hard type of thing. Work hard on the field, work hard at training and then enjoy yourself off the field. It’s very pleasant. Obviously with Castres being quite a small town, it has a relaxed atmosphere.
“There is huge support in the town for the team so, if you’re walking down the street, it’s more a nod or a hello. It’s nice. While the players are recognised, you don’t get hassled too much. It’s very friendly. I’ve not had someone come up and say ‘you’ve had a shocker’.”
Not that Gray would understand the locals if they did. There are those who pick up a language as easily as a toddler catching measles but Gray does not count himself among them. He admits that his mastery of French may require some additional homework and, while he makes an effort, taking to the French players in French, they inevitably respond in English. It’s just as well that Max Evans is on hand to translate but then Castres is a modern-day Tower of Babel with 11 different nationalities including a Spanish half-back and a Uruguayan lock.
“I just wonder why I never took French at school,” Gray berates himself. “I do give it a shot, I do try but it’s been slow progress. Minds work in different ways and mine doesn’t work like that. Mine doesn’t work at all!”
If the language nodes of his brain are struggling, at least that big, athletic body of his appears to be in pretty good nick. After overcoming some niggling injuries at the start of the season, Gray has put together an impressive run of games to help Castres up to third in the Top 14. He might not know it but he has actually appeared in ten league matches, every one of the club’s four Heineken ties to date and he will start against Leinster this afternoon.
He must be doing something right and Gray feels that he will be taking some form into the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, which is good news for Scottish fans who last saw their hero being replaced by his own brother Jonny 62 minutes into that one-sided match against the Springboks last November.
Interim head coach Scott Johnson must share some of the blame for fielding a weakened team but no one in blue excelled themselves on the day. Jonny was retained on the bench but Richie was dropped for the final match of the autumn series against Australia and he isn’t arguing the point.
“We had a good talk about it after the South African game,” says Gray. “My performance wasn’t where I wanted it to be and it wasn’t where it should have been, so I got given what I needed to work on, I went back to [my] club and worked hard on it and I feel I’ve made improvements since the autumn so, hopefully, it was a good thing. Maybe it was what I needed at the time.”
He may have passed his little brother briefly on the Murrayfield pitch as the two crossed paths, one leaving while the other entered the fray, but the siblings have yet to play together, although that will surely be put right in the Six Nations.
Richie has talked up Jonny in the past, saying: “If you think I’m good, wait till you see my little brother.” And he has been proven right because junior is ahead of where Richie was at the same age. Jonny was capped four months shy of his 20th birthday while Richie’s first Test call arrived six months after his. But there appears to be immense pride rather than envy over his younger brother’s achievements.
“I certainly hope we’ll play together in a Test,” says Richie. “I’ve not played with him at international level. In fact I haven’t played with him at any level. The Scotland camp was the first time we have been in the same rugby environment. There is a five-year age gap, which has kept us apart. I really enjoyed training with him during the autumn camp and sharing a room with him in the build-up to the South Africa game.
“It was really nice because I didn’t get to see much of him with the Lions tour and then moving over here so just to be able to spend more time with him has been brilliant.
“He’s come to me for advice in the past. He’s not looking for massive things, just little hints and tips here and there, both on and off the field. I’ve been more than happy to help him but he’s his own man and he knows what he’s doing but, whenever he’s asked for a little bit of advice, I’ve been there to give it to him.”
At the age of 24, Richie is already acting the elder statesman, at least within the Gray family. He remains the only Scot to have appeared in the 2013 Lions Test team and he remains one of the country’s very few world-class players. If Scotland are to be competitive in the Six Nations, they need their best players to perform at their best, and all the signs are encouraging for one, extra-large exile.