Scotland breakdown coach Richie Gray believes there was a big advance in that department against Wales but reckons further improvement will be needed in the upcoming crunch match with Italy.
The Scots travel to Rome next week desperate to break the run of nine consecutive Six Nations defeats and the man brought in as a specialist consultant for the tournament knows that his area of expertise is likely to be a pivotal battleground against the combative Italians.
The former Gala captain, who spent three years as South Africa breakdown coach, is relishing working in his homeland and is determined to make as big a difference as possible in his time with the national team.
“There were only 54 defensive breakdowns against Wales, whereas there were 88 against England, so we had more of the ball [against Wales] which is a good thing,” said Gray at BT Murrayfield yesterday.
“It was a real battle [in Cardiff] because they have two players, maybe three, who I rate as world class with [Sam] Warburton, [Justin] Tipuric and [Taulupe] Faletau, then you’ve also got [Gethin] Jenkins coming on who is good over the ball, Alun Wyn Jones is good at stealing and just causing a mess in the breakdown area so that was a huge positive from the weekend.”
Despite the improved performance it was yet another defeat for Vern Cotter’s men and Gray expects more from the players a week on Saturday. “We’ll have to up the game, definitely,” he said. “Before I was even involved with Scotland I was talking about the Six Nations and I’m not going to change my opinion just because I’m sitting here. I think game by game anyone can take anyone on their day. It’s fine, fine margins.
“If you look at the close scores in the first two rounds, even the Italy-England game for the first 52 minutes before the [Jonathan Joseph] interception try. It’s going to be some Test match a week on Saturday.”
Gray became a valued member of Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks coaching staff and has become a leading expert on the breakdown area, inventing and patenting a number of training aids in conjunction with the company Rhino, including his “Collision King”. He had coached Scotland age-grade sides and had a development role with the Border Reivers pro team before its demise in 2007.
“I was asked on the radio eight or nine weeks ago if I was thinking about coming back to Scotland and I never really gave it any thought because the coaches were all in place,” explained Gray. “Then one thing led to another and I was speaking to Vern and had a chat about a certain area of the game that they wanted to sharpen up a little bit on. One thing led to another and here I am two and a half days a week. I am enjoying it.
“It is interesting because I don’t know the players that well. I remember being part of the group that moved Fordy [Ross Ford] from back-row to hooker; John Barclay, I coached him at Under 18s; Greig Laidlaw I signed for the Border Reivers and Stuart Hogg was with me when he was 17 at Borders College. So there are only really four guys there.
“In some ways it has been a breath of fresh air. There is a different voice for them and you are bringing in some different ideas and some different details.”
Gray has been reunited in the Scotland coaching team with his old Gala second row partner Nathan Hines, with whom he won the Scottish Cup 17 years ago in a team that also included Chris Paterson. His contract with South Africa ended after the World Cup, during which he came up against his homeland for a third time, but he will return to work with the Blitzboks sevens team during the Rio Olympics.
The Gray philosophy on the breakdown is underpinned by strength and speed.
“In any aspect of the game, the quicker and more accurate you can be in that area of the game, you are going to stand a chance,” he said.
“When people talk about defensive breakdowns, for example, they just talk about balls you can steal but for me there are three parts to it. There are balls you can get off the ground and turn over, which is like a gold medal; you then have penalties that you might gain from being in there; and also you have to try to keep that fight going as long as you can to stop the momentum of their attack.”
Working with the Springboks was a life-changing opportunity but Gray admits that there is something special about returning home.
“I was asked down in Newcastle [before the World Cup pool match] about coaching against Scotland, which I’ve done three times. You’d be a liar if you said it was easy playing against your own country because it’s not. But it’s one that you have to win because it’s a pride thing. I come from a small town, Galashiels, and if Scotland were to beat a team I was coaching I wouldn’t be able to walk down the street for the next year and a half.
“Professional coaching has changed. It’s the same with football, you’re with a team and you do your best for the players in that team but, and there is a but, to come and work for your own country is completely different. Sometimes you don’t realise and you’ve got to be quite humble. You’re working for your own country and trying to make a small difference, that’s all I want to do.”