THERE has been a lot of talk this Autumn about the likes of Darryl Marfo, Jamie Bhatti, Luke Hamilton, Byron McGuigan and Chris Harris getting their big chance at international level – but it has also provided a much more experienced figure in Grant Gilchrist with an opportunity to embrace a new dawn in his career.
The 27-year-old made his international debut against France way back in March 2013, and has since accumulated a total of 17-caps for his country – but he has missed 36 games during that period with an awful run of injuries restricting him to just one more Six Nations appearance against Italy earlier this calendar year.
Gilchrist had clearly been earmarked as a key figure in the Scotland set-up when incoming head coach Vern Cotter asked him to captain the team against Argentina and South Africa on the 2014 summer tour, and he was supposed to lead the side through the Autumn Test schedule later that year before being side-lined the week before the series began with a double arm break – which later required surgery and ruled him out for the remainder of the 2014-15 campaign.
He returned to the Scotland set-up during the build-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, playing in two warm-up games against Ireland at Lansdowne Road and Italy at Murrayfield, followed by the first two matches of the tournament against Japan and the USA. But then bad luck struck again with a groin problem curtailing his tournament.
That injury ultimately required surgery and it was mid-February 2016 before he made his next comeback for Edinburgh against the Ospreys, only to break his arm again and miss the remainder of the campaign.
Despite his lack of recent game time, Toulon expressed an interest in taking Gilchrist on during the summer of 2016, but he was still under contract with the SRU and it didn’t happen.
Instead, he doubled down during pre-season and focussed on getting his career back on track – it was a noble idea executed with the best of intentions but the reality of being stuck at a club as hopelessly lost as the capital outfit was last term meant that he was fighting an uphill battle to recapture his form of a few seasons earlier.
As co-captain of the side, he was shouldering a lot of extra responsibility when, really, he needed to focus on his own game after so long as a bit-part player. He played in 16 of his club’s 22 games last year, and picked up that cap against Italy in March as a late replacement when Richie Gray failed to recover from a hamstring injury – but was then left out of the tour party to Singapore, Australia and Fiji during the summer.
It must have been a bitter pill to swallow at the time, but the player says he was able to put the set-back in perspective; and he is now finding out what it feels like to be on the flip side of the injury lottery, with the unavailability of Richie Gray and Tim Swinson affording him the chance to make his mark off the bench against New Zealand last Saturday and earn a starting slot against Australia this week.
“I spoke to Gregor in the summer and he said he was happier with the way I ended last season – in the last few games I was starting to get back towards my best – and he said they had always liked me as a player so I would be in their thoughts if I got back into form,” reflected Gilchrist.
“I knew what was ahead of me. They weren’t snubbing me, saying they weren’t interested in Grant Gilchrist, they just put it down to me and said I had to make some improvements in my game. They told me I had to have a good preseason and start playing really well for Edinburgh, and then they would be looking at me. It made it easier for me, knowing what I had to concentrate on.”
“I’m not sure I was worried about my arm, it was just rugby in general. It takes a little while,” he continued. ‘You take it for granted. You have a couple of years when you don’t play a lot but you assume you’ll go back to what you were straight away and that is one thing I learned: I may have put too much pressure on myself early on to be the player that I was rather than just concentrate on the getting back to match sharpness and getting back to concentrating on making sure you improve every day.”
“So that is what I have done, I have been playing regularly and just trying to get better week-on-week-on-week. Hopefully I am starting to get there.”
“I think I am now playing as good rugby as I’ve ever played regardless of injuries or anything. I take confidence from that and go out and play. I don’t think a lot about the past really, there is enough going on right now. So, I’ll concentrate on the big task at hand this weekend and make sure that my performance is up there.”
It helps, of course, that his club has now seems to have developed a sense of purpose under Richard Cockerill after three seasons of floating aimlessly in a tide of mediocrity under Alan Solomons and then a makeshift interim coaching set-up.
“Obviously, he [Cockerill] is a top-class coach. He’s a forwards coach so there’s a lot to learn from him. In general, the way we have been playing has allowed me to develop a lot more. In every game I’ve played, I feel I have played better this season,” agreed the player.
“Pre-season was good for me. Obviously, I didn’t make the tour, but it was an opportunity for me to get myself as fit as I’ve ever been.”
Edinburgh have had their fair share of off-field challenges to contend with this year and they are a long way from being the finished article on the park, but there is a pervading positivity about the club now which had been conspicuously absent for far too long.
“Winning does that. It’s just a little bit easier when you are sore but you’ve put everything into a game and you still come in feeling happy because you’ve won,” Gilchrist reasoned.
“When you get beaten up, and you put everything into it but come out on the losing side, then that Monday and Tuesday there’s always that soul-searching. We had a lot of that last year. It does dampen you down. Whereas winning, and the way we are trying to play – positively – means that as an individual you express yourself. I’m finding Edinburgh a great place to play my rugby and it is getting the best out of me individually as well.”
The Scotland squad might not have had a win at their backs when they reconvened on Monday after last weekend’s clash against the All Blacks, and there was bound to be disappointment within the camp that they didn’t quite get over the line – but they will have taken a huge amount of confidence from the character of their performance, and Gilchrist restated the party line that the key now is to make sure it was not a flash in the pan but a building block for further improvement.
“We have spoken all week about Australia being just as big a challenge as last weekend,” he said. “We are playing one of the best sides in the world at home, which is something that we are relishing but we know where the challenge lies as well.”