YOU will never hear an international rugby player say that he was more motivated for one game than another. Every time they represent their country is equally important, tends to be the mandatory refrain. But human nature dictates that if you have been a regular in the side, then been dropped despite not having played badly, there is bound to be an extra edge when you eventually get your next chance.
That certainly seemed to be the case with Grant Gilchrist on Sunday, who put in a huge shift in the second-row as Scotland upset the Six Nations apple-cart with a resounding victory over France at Murrayfield. The 29-year-old made 23 tackles – more than any other player on the park – without a single miss. He also did a lot of important carrying in heavy-traffic, was the top line-out operator in the match with six takes and was an absolute nuisance to the French maul.
Who knows what the ‘Toony Tombola’ will throw up at Thursday’s team announcement ahead of Saturday’s appointment with Wales in Cardiff? But Gilchrist has certainly made it very difficult for the coach to leave him out.
“I’ve been champing at the bit to be involved so it was a big opportunity for me,” acknowledged the player. “Like every time you get to be involved with Scotland, you try to make the most of it. There are things I want to do better but on the whole, it’s a performance I can build on.
“I think a strength of mine is playing with that edge – I always try and bring that out in myself,” he added. “Spending a bit of time out of the team, or fighting for your place, just makes you better. Competition makes you better.
“I’ve been fighting tooth and nail in training, but nobody gets to see that. Just when you get that opportunity, you get the chance to show you can put it out on the pitch. So, I was as hungry as ever and I know that to keep my place in the team, I need to be like that every time I put the jersey on. It’s pretty simple for me.”
No fringe player
While Gilchrist makes no bones about being frustrated at his fringe role during the opening three rounds of the championship, he says he was never despondent.
“I felt coming into the tournament that my form was pretty good with Edinburgh, but I was also aware that we’re blessed with quality players in my position and they were also playing well,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to take it on the chin and wait for your opportunity. It’s not always about how you’re playing, it’s about how other guys are playing and what the coaches want.
“I always believed I had attributes that I could bring to the table for the team, I was always pushing hard, and I believed I could force my way back in during this tournament.
“I’ve been around the block and I’ve always had to fight for my place, and I think that’s a good thing. Throughout my whole career, there’s never been a spell when I’ve been a guaranteed pick, so I’m pretty much the same off the field [whether in the team or not] and I fight the same way I always do.”
Cup final occasion
Scotland now have an opportunity to make it three wins on the trot in this championship – something they haven’t managed since 1996 – but standing in their way is a Welsh side who will be desperate to avoid a fourth consecutive defeat in their first campaign under Wayne Pivac.
Cardiff hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Scotland in the last two decades. They have suffered 10 losses on the bounce, including a thumping 34-7 reversal two years ago in Gregor Townsend’s first Six Nations game as head coach. But Gilchrist says the team will embrace the challenge of going into battle in the Dragons’ den
“There are no bigger games than cup finals and this is like one,” said Gilchrist, who came off the bench during that 2018 Six Nations defeat. “It is a straight shoot-out against them. If we lose, they finish above us. If we win, we finish above them.
“So, it is an exciting time to go down there and leave nothing out there at the end. A chance to win three games would help as build so much momentum. As a squad this would be a great time to do it.
“They’ve changed their style a little bit,” he continued. “In years gone by, they’d bully you, out-kick you, strangle you – that was always how they played against us. Now, they’ll still back themselves physically and we’ll need to be as good as we were at the weekend and probably better in some areas because that battle is coming, but they also play with a lot more ambition than they have before.
“They’ve got another dimension under Pivac, they’ll look to play to the width and offload. They’ve got their traditional strengths, but I’d be expecting we’ll have to fill the field better and defend wider attacks rather than just blunt force up the middle.”
Into the dragon’s den
Gilchrist dismissed the suggestion that the combination of a fiercely partisan home support at the Principality Stadium and having to play two games in six days could render the goal Scotland are chasing unattainable.
“You will always have to deal with that atmosphere, and they will always come out firing,” he said. “It is the size of the challenge we have to meet, and it is also a great opportunity for us. We have proved we can do it away from home. We haven’t been good enough down there [in the recent past] but we have wind in our sails [this time] and go down there with a bit of momentum.
“The Six Nations is what it’s all about and you know you’ll get those short turnarounds,” he added, “If we finish with three wins in a row that’s a marked improvement from the World Cup. We know the size of the challenge and that’s what excites us.
“Playing for Scotland, for me, it’s never an excuse … short turnarounds or whatever. Training will be a bit less this week, so we’re fresh. It’s about our mindset and mentality being right.”