Gray grateful for early taste of high life
With the IRB Junior World Championship kicking off in Italy in less than three weeks, we begin our build up by highlighting some of the players who have graduated from the Under 20 tournament to make an impression in the Test arena.
Modesty prevents Richie Gray from taking for granted his place in Scotland’s World Cup squad.
But for the Glasgow Warriors second row, all 6ft 9½ins of him, whether he will be on the plane for New Zealand would seem less of a concern than exactly where on the plane.
With his frame, surely a seat, or two, or even three up the pointy end would be in order for the long haul down under.
“I hope so, otherwise, I’ll have to lie down the aisle of the plane with a blanket over me,” he told Total Rugby Radio recently before taking a well-earned break ahead of the countdown to Rugby World Cup 2011.
You get the impression, however, that the affable 21-year-old with the blond mop would not make too much of a fuss if the VIP treatment did not come his way.
For a young man scaling the heights in more ways than one, his feet seem planted firmly on the ground.
Such an even temperament probably explains why he has turned a potentially frustrating period on the sidelines, wrapped in cotton wool for the last part of the season by Scotland coach Andy Robinson, into a positive.
“I was still training with the guys, out on the pitch doing a lot of work, still there doing whatever I could for the team, but just not playing at the weekends. It has given me time to go into the gym and work on my fitness so it’s been really good for myself to take care of my body quite a bit.”
The break, designed to deliver him to New Zealand in peak condition, has also provided him with time to reflect on a hectic 15 months, during which he has gone from skippering Scotland’s Under 20s to being a regular starter under Robinson and one of the team’s key players.
Gray first appeared for the senior team as a replacement in the Six Nations defeat by France in February 2010.
He made his full debut in the crushing 49-3 defeat by New Zealand nine months later – “a very bittersweet day” – and has played in 10 Tests in all, the most memorable being the 21-17 win over world champions South Africa just a week after the defeat by the All Blacks.
And he credits his impressive transition to the elite ranks in no small way to the solid international grounding he received playing at the 2008 and 2009 IRB Junior World Championships.
“It’s very similar. You’ve got your training and you’re staying in hotels with the guys, [enjoying] the same sort of camaraderie.”
Having had that big-tournament experience “certainly puts you at ease as a young player” when you move into the senior camp, he added.
Gray stepped up an age group to play at the 2008 event in Wales, though his playing time was restricted to the first pool match against Samoa and 10 minutes of the next fixture against South Africa before injury ended his tournament.
A year later he captained the team in Japan and it was here that he developed a taste for top international competition.
“It was a huge honour for myself to be captain at a World Cup. Japan was a great place to go out to ... fantastic venue, the crowds were magnificent. The stadium had been revamped I think and was packed out for every game.
“There’s nothing better than to be with your close mates and get to spend more time with them and have a good laugh in the hotel. It’s just a really good experience.
“Obviously, you have to keep yourself to yourself at some points because being away with guys for 20 days, sometimes it can get a bit heated. But all in all, I had a great time. I really enjoyed it.
“It [the IRB Junior World Championship] gives you a little taste of what the senior World Cup and senior internationals might be like.”
Gray did not have long to find out. Five months after returning from Japan he came on as a replacement in Scotland A’s win over Tonga, and within three months he was a full-fledged international.
Such rapid progress surprised him as much as anyone.
“After the Under 20s, my main focus was to knuckle down at Glasgow and try and establish myself in the team. But through all the coaches that helped me and the players alongside me, I made some good strides forward and was lucky enough to get the call for my senior debut.
“I was very surprised at how fast it all came. I still have to pinch myself.”
Gray is used to standing out, having loomed over his peers since his school days, but he says he does not feel weighed down by others’ expectations of him.
“I try not to get too caught up in the expectations in the media. The focus for me is to play as well as I can in every game if I get that “opportunity.”
Gray says Rugby World Cup 2011 had never been on his radar, even during his steady climb up the junior ranks in recent years.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. My main focus was to establish myself as a club player and thankfully things have happened a little bit quicker.”
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