An exclusive band of Scots playing for foreign sides have managed to reach the pinnacle of European rugby and, this weekend, two still have a shot at joining the elite club.
Sean Maitland’s Saracens are first up tomorrow, facing Munster at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, before Richie Gray continues his impressive injury comeback in the heart of the engine room for original European kings Toulouse against defending champions Leinster at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
For Maitland, below, it is a chance to make up for the opportunity of missing Sarries’ title win at BT Murrayfield two years ago with injury, while for former Glasgow, Sale and Castres lock Gray it will be the first time in 36 competition appearances that he has reached such an advanced stage of the tournament.
He is determined to add his name to a list which includes Andy Nicol, who was the first Briton to lift the European Cup, albeit with English club Bath in 1998. The retired Jim Hamilton and currently sidelined Duncan Taylor have two winner’s medals, while the Northampton side of 2000 included six Scots. Five were in the matchday 23 for Saints’ 9-8 win over Munster at Twickenham, with flanker Simon Holmes collecting a medal for appearances in previous games.
Before Gray can start contemplating such things, he faces a ferociously daunting showdown with the imperious Irish province on Sunday.
“It will be a huge challenge playing at the Aviva Stadium against arguably the best team in Europe at this time and one of the best over the past few seasons,” said Gray as he looked forward to the big match.
It has been an invigorating few months for the 29-year-old as he has helped drive Toulouse to the top of the French 14 and latter stages of Europe after a period of slumber for Le Rouge et Noir. The four-time European champions have not won the national title since 2012, two years more recent than their last Heineken crown.
The last of Gray’s 65 Scotland caps came in last year’s Six Nations finale against Italy before back problems ruled him out of the summer tour, autumn Tests and this year’s Six Nations.
He was back playing for his club by the end of January but Scotland coach Gregor Townsend clearly felt it was better for the former Lion to focus on getting a good bank of rugby under his belt before pushing on for a third World Cup appearance later this year.
A profitable bank of games it has been as Toulouse have rediscovered their swagger, although often in a helter-skelter style which Gray admits will have to be reined in come Sunday.
A case in point being last weekend’s remarkable 47-44 win over Clermont.
“In the dressing room there was a huge amount of relief afterwards,” he said of that 91-point thriller. “In all honesty, we got out of jail a bit. We were delighted to beat a team like Clermont and stay top of the league but we will need to sharpen up. If we give Leinster 44 points it could be a pretty difficult day at the office.”
French clubs dominated the early years of the Heineken Cup and inaugural champions Toulouse, who beat Cardiff at the Arms Park 23 years ago, went on to win in 2003, 2005 (at Murrayfield) and 2010.
The prized trophy has ended up in Gallic hands eight times in total but, it is fair to say, the attitude across the channel to the continent’s premier club tournament has been typically insouciant, with a bright fleeting interest often quickly given a shrug and focus turned back to domestic matters.
With Toulouse flying high in the Top 14 Gray, though, was adamant that no priority of being crowned kings of France once again had been placed on the squad.
“Nope. Not at all,” he said. “This is a huge club with huge ambition and we want to do well in both competitions. There is no priority.”
Gray is equally straight up when asked if the fact Sunday will be a clash of two sides level-pegging on a record of four European titles.
“We’re just looking to win a game of rugby and go further in the competition,” he said. “We’re not talking about European records or anything.”
The 6ft 9in lock has played with a few mavericks in his career, a few of them during his career breakthrough at his home city club of Glasgow Warriors, but he highlighted Toulouse’s quicksilver South African wing Cheslin Kolbe as one of the most special talents he has encountered.
Toulouse will need to knuckle down and drop the Harlem Globetrotters act at the Aviva if they are to have any chance against Leinster but it may need a spark of genius to reach a seventh final and Kolbe could be the man to provide it.
“He’s unbelievable the things he does,” said Gray of the hot-stepping Springbok. “You don’t know what he’s going to do next. At the weekend against Clermont he slipped, recovered, then went on to score a 40-metre try. Some of the stuff he does you can’t believe is possible.
“He’s a really good boy, really relaxed and is having a great time over here, having a lot of fun. He just goes out on the field and takes risks.At training you can’t touch him, you try to tackle his shadow. He really is pretty impressive.”