THERE was a time, not that long ago, when even Richie Gray wondered if his international career might be over. Following his decision not to join Scotland’s World Cup training squad last summer, the 65-times capped second-row watched that tournament and the first four rounds of the 2020 Six Nations (when he was injured) from his home in France, and wondered whether his ship had sailed.
Now, after moving home, and having settled back into life with Glasgow Warriors (albeit in the strange Covid-dominated environment we all currently inhabit), he was delighted to get a call-up to the national team’s training squad which has congregated at Oriam this week to begin preparation for a six-match Autumn Test schedule, kicking-off this coming Friday with a friendly against Georgia behind closed-doors at Murrayfield.
“Gregor sent me a text on Sunday night to say I was involved and I texted back straight away to say that I can’t wait to be a part of it,” he says. “It is just great because I’m in a far better place than I was World Cup time.
“Now it is just about taking the opportunity – but, yeah, there was a period after the World Cup when I thought that it might have been all over,” he adds, before explaining that he never lost his passion for playing for his country, but the circumstances last summer were not right for him to make the commitment of going into camp for 100 days building up to the plane heading off to Japan.
“It was pretty simple, really,” he says. “It was the birth of my child in May and the camp was two weeks after that, and I wanted to be around for my wife and my son. To go away for the World Cup, that would have been a few months that requires a lot, and I just didn’t feel I was in the best place to offer that. And, also, I had just come back from injury, so probably wasn’t in the best place physically. So those two reasons were the deciding factors, and Gregor understood.”
Gray started Glasgow Warriors’ first game post-lockdown against Edinburgh and looked some way back to his best as his team’s top tackler with 16, but then had to pull out of the rematch because of a possible Covid exposure. He has since come off the bench in the Warriors’ two matches so far in the 2020-21 PRO14 campaign, and insists that he is feeling sharp.
“We’ll see but I certainly feel like I’ve had some really good preparation with Glasgow,” he said. “I’ve not had much game-time but I’ve been able to get the training reps in there, and here with Scotland, so in general I’m feeling good. Ready for Test match intensity? I’m not sure, but I certainly feel good at the moment.”
With competition for places keener than it has ever been, Gray argues that he is far from guaranteed game time this Autumn. Even with his brother Jonny and Sam Skinner both still on club duty with Exeter Chiefs, he is up against Grant Gilchrist, Scott Cummings, Ben Toolis and Rob Harley in the battle for the Nos 4 and 5 jerseys next Friday.
As a 2013 Lions tour veteran, who has played in all three of the top flight professional leagues in Europe, the 31-year-old is comfortably the most experienced of the engine-room candidates – but he knows that he will have to prove the he has still got what it takes physically to command a place in the match-day squad.
“The game’s always evolving, it’s getting faster, there are more powerful players and the intensity is always increasing,” he reflects. “If I look at the intensity from when I started [first cap 2010] to now, it’s night and day. So, I think it will be different. However, what I’m really pleased about is being involved in the Glasgow environment and then being involved in the Scotland environment.
“There’s always lingering [injury] hassles! I think when you get to my age that’s just part and parcel, but I’m still here and still going strong”
“It’s going to be hard. There are seven decent second-rows so there’s a lot of depth. It’s certainly the most depth I’ve seen in a Scotland squad and that’s only a good thing.
“Every player wants to play international rugby. What I have left over? I’m not sure but I think I can offer something – that is why I am here. Who knows what will happen over the next couple of weeks – but I am enjoying my time here and will do what I can.”
Before he finds out if he will be involved in the Georgia game, there is the small matter of watching little brother Jonny in action for Exeter in this afternoon’s European Champions Cup Final clash against Racing 92 in Bristol. The younger Gray sibling will be one of five Scots involved in the match, alongside club-mates Stuart Hogg, Skinner and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, while Finn Russell will line up at stand-off for the French side.
“Jonny went down there at the start of July and slotted in really well,” says big brother. “It looks like he has been there for years. Now he is challenging for a European Cup and the following week he is going to be challenging for a Premiership title. It is going to be a very proud moment for us as a family.”