If you ever had a sneaky feeling that modern rugby is blighted by a wave of injuries then Scotland lock Grant Gilchrist is living proof. Despite being first called into the Scotland squad way back in 2012, he has only managed to accumulate 17 caps in the five years since and made just two appearances in the Six Nations, his first and last starts for Scotland.
He is the Benjamin Button of Scottish rugby, his career running backwards from the highlight of being named national captain by Vern Cotter in October 2014 to the ignominy of being overlooked for Gregor Townsend’s summer touring squad last June.
That may be about to change as Gilchrist’s career has taken a turn for the better. Tomorrow he appears in the Scotland starting XV to play Australia for the first time since facing Italy in March of this year, according to his coach the long lock is back to his best and he isn’t going to argue the point.
“I spoke to Gregor in the summer and he said he was happier with the way I ended last season,” Gilchrist said. “In the last few games of last season I was starting to get back towards my best. He said they had always liked me as a player and I would be in their thoughts if I got back into form.
“I have probably, over the last two seasons, just gradually been getting back to my best and I think I am playing as good rugby as I’ve ever played regardless of injuries or anything.”
Gilchrist may want to ignore his injuries and you can understand why. Four days after he was anointed Scotland captain he broke his arm. It didn’t heal as expected, so required surgery. Then came a groin injury that he picked up while playing against the USA in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, it too required the sawbones.
Toulon were said to be courting him but, if they were monitoring him, the French giants would have been less than wowed by Gilchrist’s form. Upon his return to action the big man struggled to scale his previous heights. Were there times, Gilchrist was asked, when he thought he would never make it back to the top?
“No,” he counters, “I think I always had belief in myself. But the process of getting here is not necessarily about being here, it’s about what you do day in and day out. That’s what I tried to put all my focus into, rather than concentrate on playing for Scotland. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything possible day in and day out to make sure I was performing well at the weekend.
“It can be frustrating when you are not playing as well as you know you can, or have in the past but, on the other hand, when you are injured you know what it feels like not to be able to play and not to be able to train and get better. The way I looked at it I had to concentrate on X, Y and Z but I am able to do it, so just get the head down and that’s all I am trying to do.”
Gilchrist’s return to form has been helped by Richard Cockerill in particular and the change in Edinburgh Rugby’s fortunes in general and Scotland will need the best of him if they are to finish the autumn series with a flourish.
And while the Scots have won three of their last six Tests against the Wallabies, including that historic win in Sydney in June, Gilchrist has yet to beat them, finishing on the losing side by one point a year ago after Bernard Foley converted Tevita Kuridrani’s late try. Scotland outscored the visitors three tries to two that day and have only become more adventurous since.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll be ready for what we’re going to bring and we just have to make sure we execute it to a level better than we have ever done before,” said the lock.
“There will be no complacency [from Australia], they will have watched our games the last couple of weeks and the game in Sydney and they’ll be really well prepared and fired up. I expect them to have really high energy and high intensity in their game, so that just puts more on us. We’ve got to make sure that we have that energy and intensity and execute our game plan as well as we ever have.
“I hope it’s a good Test match. If we do everything right we want to come out with a win. The last time I played against Australia was in the autumn last year and I remember that feeling of losing out narrowly in a game that we felt we should have won, so from my point of view we want to come out on the winning side on Saturday.”