Scotland v Italy: Gary Graham finally reaches the promised land

Flanker delighted to put 'silliness' of England dalliance in the past as prodigal son celebrates his first cap

Gary Graham
Gary Graham became the 1102nd player to be capped by Scotland against Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

GARY GRAHAM’S old man is a notorious tough nut. George came up the hard way on Stirling’s Raploch estate, joined the army when he was 16 and spent 11 years in the service of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, followed by five years putting his body on the line playing rugby league for Carlisle in the north of England. He returned to the 15-man code when the game went ‘open’ in the mid-1990s and – at the ripe old age of 31 – the prop forward finally became a full Scotland cap against Australia at Murrayfield in November 1997. He went on to pick up 25 caps in total.

More recently, George has forged a formidable reputation as a no-nonsense coach with Gala in the Scottish club game, the Scotland national team, Petrarca Padova in Italy, Gala again and most recently Hawick.

But Graham senior also has a soft side. He freely admits to crying buckets with his front-row comrade Kevin McKenzie on the night he left his hometown club of Stirling County to play rugby league, and after Gary Armstrong’s last cap at the 1999 World Cup, and when he left Newcastle Falcons to join the Border Reivers in 2002, and so on.

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And he was at it again on Saturday afternoon, this time when Gary – after one of the most tortuous courtships in international rugby history – finally joined him as a fully-fledged Scotland cap, playing the final nine minutes in his country’s victory over Italy at Murrayfield.

“I saw him after the game and he was bawling his eyes out saying how proud he was,” explained junior. “It was a really special moment.”

You get the feeling George would have blubbed anyway, but the rollercoaster journey his second son has been on to get to this point will have undoubtedly heightened emotions.

This time last year Gary was a member of England’s Six Nations training squad, having grown disillusioned by a lack of love coming from north of the Border. He had represented Scotland at Under-20s and Club XV level whilst playing under his father at Gala, but by 2015 it had become painfully clear that he was not seen as a potential pro player by the SRU and he decided to throw his lot in with English Championship side Jersey Reds.

An offer too good to refuse?

Two years later he got a chance of the big time at his dad’s old stomping ground of Newcastle Falcons, and no sooner had he arrived at Kingston Park than Eddie Jones was on the phone. Graham wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“When I first signed for Newcastle I was hoping I might get a game or two. Then I got a couple and I became a regular. When it [the call from Jones] happened, I thought there must be someone called Gary Graham in a different team. I was just happy to be involved to be honest.”

It is easy to get all idealistic about this. To be absolutely certain of your own unwavering loyalty to the thistle. To find it unfathomable that any true-blooded Scot could ever countenance wearing the rose.

But most of us haven’t dedicated our life to becoming the absolutely best rugby player we can be, and then put on the spot where you have to choose between: A – the biggest and richest rugby playing nation in the world, where you happen to have spent most of your life, and who have now expressed an interest in you; or, B – the country you are ancestrally linked to, who have a far smaller player pool but have still shown next to no interest in you for several years.

Graham made his choice and, looking at it dispassionately, it is not hard to see his reasoning. But he then made another decision which wasn’t so clever when he gave an interview to the Daily Mail in which he said a few things which were hardly going to endear him north of the border. It was an impetuous move, which came back to bite him on the backside when it became obvious that he and England were not really a good fit (after injury ruled him out of that Six Nations campaign and he wasn’t selected for the summer tour of South Africa).

‘I’m now where I’m supposed to be’

“I’ve had a few wind-ups, but we all make mistakes,” said Graham, when asked how his squad-mates had dealt with his English dalliance. “It was a bit of silliness from me. But I’m now where I’m supposed to be.

“They [teammates] had been perfect, really good boys. Everything is geared towards winning and Scotland being a better team. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

“I’m still kind of pinching myself. When we came in, I got off the bus and I was choking back tears. I didn’t really know what was going on. I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing so I’m just taking it as it comes.”

Nine minutes was hardly long enough to do much on Saturday, but as proud as the old boy is, it won’t stop Scotland Cap Number 918 finding some home truths to deliver Scotland Cap Number 1102 once the tears subside.

“He’s my biggest critic,” said the son, with a knowing smile. “But I think that has probably got me to where I am. He used to drive me hard when I was at Gala and even at Newcastle he watches all my games back and tells me what I’ve done wrong. I’ve never had a good game according to my dad.

“He is probably the most passionate Scotsman on the planet and he has instilled that in me. Getting here and reliving the dream that he had and the dream that I had is a really special moment for us both.”

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About David Barnes 3033 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he 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.