France v Scotland: comeback kid Richie Gray returns to happy hunting ground

Second-row made a big impression on his first Sox Nations start at Stade de France back in 2011

Richie Gray yesterday's Scotland captain's run at Stade De France. Image: © Craig Watson -
Richie Gray yesterday's Scotland captain's run at Stade De France. Image: © Craig Watson -

RICHIE GRAY is returning to a happy hunting ground this afternoon. The 6ft 9ins second-row – who has formed a formidable partnership with Grant Gilchrist in Scotland’s engine-room during their two wins so far in this Six Nations championship – made a big impression at the Stade de France on his first Six Nations start back in February 2011.

As a bleached blond 21-year-old, he underlined the potential shown off the bench during the previous Six Nations, and as a starter against New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa that Autumn, with an all-action performance, with one particularly memorable rampage up the middle of the park bringing almost every one of the 80,000 fans congregated in the stadium – supporters of both sides – to their feet.

A headline in French sports newspaper L’Equipe the following day simply stated: “Si blond, si bon”“so blond, so good”.

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It was all in vain, of course. Scotland scored three tries, but their opponents scored four to get their Grand Slam defence off to a 34-21 winning start. They beat Ireland the following week, but losses to eventual champions England and Italy derailed their hopes of retaining the Six Nations title.

Meanwhile, Scotland – coached by Andy Robinson with a certain Gregor Townsend as his assistant – managed just a solitary home win over Italy, on the final weekend of that year’s championship, to avoid the wooden spoon.

“From a personal point of view, being selfish, it was quite fun but at the end of the day we lost the game quite convincingly,” said the now 33-year-old Gray, when asked for his memories of that day. “I think, certainly, the team is in a different place from where it was 10 to 12 years ago.”

Asked about how he has developed as a player during that same period, he doesn’t miss a beat. “A different haircut certainly!” retorts the now tightly-cropped Gray.

“I think [I’m] potentially a bit more refined, [with] a bit more importance placed on what my role is in the team and going out and performing that to the best of my ability and anything on top of that is a bonus,” he adds.

Gray’s international career trajectory initially followed the route we all thought it would. He scored a remarkable solo try against Ireland at Lansdowne Road during the following year’s Six Nations, bursting two tackles just inside the opposition’s half, then sending home full-back Rob Kearney the wrong way with an audacious dummy as he galloped to the line. He was one of only three Scots – alongside Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland – selected for the 2013 Lions tour to South Africa, and the only Scot to appear in a Test match on that trip as a 67th-minute replacement in the final game of the series. And he won his 50th cap during the 2015 World Cup.

He could easily have been well past the century mark by now, but big men who put their body on the line the way he has done throughout his career sometimes need protecting from themselves, and a toxic mix of injury and fatigue meant that his Scotland career stalled between the end of the 2017 Six Nations and his spectacular return to the fold this season.

During that time, he managed just three bench appearances for Scotland, meaning today’s return to Stade de France will be his 72nd cap – still not a bad haul! – when realistically he could have been well past the century mark, and probably beyond Ross Ford’s record haul of 110.

At least three times during those wilderness years, Gray turned down invites from Gregor Townsend to join the squad, as he struggled to stay match fit and motivated whilst raising a young family and coping with the gruelling demands of French professional rugby, where he played three season with Castres between 2013 and 2016 then four season with Toulouse up to his return to Glasgow in 2020.

The suspicion was that he had become ambivalent about playing for the national team, but it is now clear that he knew his own body and mind, and that he needed to get to a place where he was physically and psychologically ready to not only turn up but also deliver to the levels he demands of himself.

“There were times when it seemed a bit beyond me with the quality Scotland have in the second row but I am happy I have been able to get my way back,” he says, having made his first Six Nations start in six years against England at the start of this campaign.

“I am just enjoying my rugby,” adds Gray, who was also in the Scotland team which lost 19-16 at Stade de France in 2016, was a beaten Top 14 finalist at the venue when playing for Castres against Toulon in 2014, and came off the bench when Toulouse won the title there in 2o19.

“If you can have a bit of a run staying on the field it makes things a bit easier. Credit to the coaches and the players, I think the environment created is outstanding. I can’t speak highly enough of that. And being back at Glasgow we’ve got a pretty good environment there and things are going well too.”

A key factor in Gray’s form for club and country this season is the way his body is being managed under Franco Smith, who took over as Glasgow Warriors head coach last summer.

“I’m certainly an older athlete now so I’m always having conversations with the S&C [strength and conditioning] staff at Glasgow to see how best to manage my week,” he explains. “They are very receptive, Franco has been very receptive and in fact he has been the one driving it.

“So, if I tail-back at the start of the week I’m able to get more at the end. It’s certainly something that’s working, and I hope it can continue.”

Gregor Townsend’s take on Richie Gray:

“It’s come from himself. When he came back to Glasgow [in 2020] he was playing well for them. Danny [Wilson] relied on him. He played a lot of minutes, their line-out defence became the best in the league. He was combining really well with Scott Cummings. We were watching and thinking ‘he’s back at a level where he could play Test rugby’. He played in our win down at Twickenham two years ago and against Wales [both off the bench]. Then he had a couple of injuries and the form of other second-rows meant we didn’t believe he would start for us.

“But from this season’s performances, and also his belief in himself, that was the big change. He felt two years ago he wasn’t able to perform well at Test level. But now, with his physical conditioning, his performances, he could make a difference – and what a difference he has made.

“It shows you that age is becoming increasingly less relevant in sport. We see his GPS and his speed times – they are the best they’ve ever been. He looks after himself so well. He is first into the gym to get his body ready, he is the last to leave after doing all the recovery. He is putting that work in to be able to do the tough training that second rows have to do in the week, play 80 minutes for us at the weekend and play his best rugby he has played for Scotland I believe – better than when he broke through, because his all-round game is so good.”

“It also gives the hookers on our side confidence, the fact you’ve got such a good, 100% lineout jumper. His lineout and work-rate were at such a good level we thought he could help us improve… but he saved a try against Wales with a tackle. He had another one in the second half – Rio Dyer broke through and he tackled him. He had a great carry that should have led to a try for George Turner. He is playing all-round rugby at a very high level, which is great for us.”

“When I was coaching in 2011 [as assistant to Andy Robinson] he made a break against France – I can picture him with his blond hair, breaking through – and he scored a great try against Ireland [in 2012 Six Nations]. He is playing better all-round rugby now. He was making the breaks back then, but the game has tightened up a lot since then. That carry against Wales was maybe as good as you’ll get from second rows. His experience helps too. He knows lineouts, he knows the dark arts now that maybe he didn’t know 10 years ago.  It is a great story.

“The physical side is so important. He went from playing game after game in France, to injury. He wasn’t looked after well enough and he was part of that too, not just the club. He had hamstring, hip, back injuries. He couldn’t deliver what we believed he should be delivering but he was still very valuable to Toulouse and to Castres.

“He has always put in the work. When people look at his brother and his work-rate, which is phenomenal, they maybe don’t see Richie’s work-rate. Richie will be first up at the kick-chase, getting round the corner …

“If Scott [Cummings] gets through the next two weeks, what a selection headache we are going to have in the second-row. It is great. If they are all available, we have some brilliant players in that position.”

The next stop on the Richie Gray comeback tour is a return to the Stade de France this afternoon for the 100th playing of the Scotland versus France saga (with today’s visitors leading the series 57-39 and three draws).

Scotland have the momentum of two wins on the bounce for the first time at the start of a Six Nations campaign and winning in Paris for the first time since 1999 last time out (albeit with no fans in the stadium) will also help with confidence.

Meanwhile, the hosts won the Grand Slam last year, are ranked second in the world, and are looking to bounce back from their defeat to Ireland last time out.

“It is France’s first game at home in this championship so that will be massive for them, an enormous drive,” says Gray. “It will spur them on, it will give them a huge sense of belief, like it does for us when we’re at home.

“Going back to Franco at Glasgow, his quote is that teams are always 100 per cent at home so we need to be 120 per cent. I think he’s bang on. We know how good we have to be to compete.

“Both teams have gone for a six-two split on the bench, so it is going to be a very hard and attritional game up front,” he concludes. “Both teams will be searching for parity and if we get the upper hand, we know we have the back line that can cause some damage. It’s an old cliche, but it will all start up front.”

France v Scotland preview: will fortune favour the brave in Paris?

About David Barnes 3989 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.