A totemic figure for the national side for most of the previous decade, he then slipped off the Scotland radar. The last time he was named in the starting XV was against England at Twickenham in the 2017 Six Nations when Vern Cotter was still Scotland’s head coach. To give it some context, there have been four British prime ministers in the intervening years.
Gray has earned his recall with a series of performances for Glasgow Warriors which had current Scotland coach Gregor Townsend purring when he named his autumn series squad. “He’s played two games this season where it’s the best I’ve seen him play in more than five years – against Cardiff and against the Bulls,” said Townsend. “His form has been great to see. The other thing is him saying that he wants to play for Scotland again. His form has helped that decision. He feels he can perform at Test level.”
At 33, and with 67 caps and two Rugby World Cup campaigns to his name, some may have felt the sun had set on Gray’s international career. Now the prospect of lining up for Scotland at next year’s World Cup in France is a real possibility. “Yes, it is certainly an ambition,” he said, with a note of caution. “First and foremost, we have the game this weekend. It will be a tough game against Fiji but it always is. Let’s take it one step at a time.”
Gray missed out on the 2019 World Cup in Japan but feels in a better place now, both personally and physically, and you sense he is relishing his return to the international camp and the quickened pace.
“It was an intense session and certainly an eye opener for me because it’s been a while,” he said of training this week. “It was a wee bit quicker than what I’m used to but it was good. The team are looking sharp and the boys running the Fiji plays in the non-23 were looking sharp as well. It was a really good session. There were a few things to iron out, which we did, so we’re in a good place and hopefully we can build on that.
“At the time of the 2019 World Cup I had the birth of my first child and a whole host of injuries. The timing just wasn’t right. But physically I feel great and mentally I’m in a really good place as well. I’m happy with the rugby I’ve been playing so I want to come in and have a go at it.”
There have been three appearances as a replacement since his last Scotland start, including at Twickenham in the historic Calcutta Cup win last year, but Saturday’s game with Fiji is set to be Gray’s first start under Townsend. His lineout work was rightly praised by the coach but Townsend also enthused about his defence, work-rate, carrying and link-play. “It’s the best I’ve seen from him. I’m saying five years, but it’s probably longer than five years,” he said.
Gray puts his improvement down to a combination of graft and changing his style to become more involved. “I think I had a pretty good year last year, a bit different in terms of what I was trying to produce on the pitch,” said the second row. “This year I’m just trying to have a few more moments in terms of link play in attack.
“Last year was very good on the foundations - set piece, lineout, lineout defence, which has now become a massive part of the game, and just generally defence around the park. I was happy with where I got to last year and this year I have been trying to link up in attack between forwards and backs and get on the ball a bit more. That’s been the big focus for me in these first few games of the season. I think I can still push forward, but I’m happy with where I’m at.
“There’s been a bit of hard work that has gone into it. It’s just a case of can I replicate that on the international stage where obviously things move a wee bit faster and there is not so much space but that’s the challenge going into the weekend.”
Gray was unavailable for the opening autumn Test against Australia due to a head knock but is fully recovered and looking forward to locking horns again with Fiji, now coached by Cotter. His one previous appearance against the Fijians was ten years ago which Scotland won 37-25 in Lautoka, but only after an early scare. “I remember Andy Robinson said, ‘let’s not get carried away in a sevens match’. I think with my first touch I offloaded the ball and they intercepted. I won’t be doing that at the weekend.”
Gray’s career highlights include key roles for Scotland at the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and 2015, playing in the Lions Test side in Australia in 2013 and helping Toulouse win the Top 14 in 2019. It’s a stellar list of achievements but he feels there is still unfinished business.
“Rugby players go on a bit longer these days,” he said. “I take a lot of confidence from that. I’ve been given the opportunity to come back in, physically I feel well and mentally I feel good and I’m playing some good rugby so everything has just come together. It’s not about the last waltz or anything like that. It’s just about coming in and playing some rugby. I’m not talking about finishing.”