If anyone doubted the commitment of Richie Gray to Glasgow Warriors, imagine the dedication required to drive for two days and over 1,100 miles, spend a fortnight in quarantine and then start pre-season training at your new club. Now imagine that you are 6ft 10ins tall and have your 13-month-old son and two dogs in the back of your car.
In the midst of a global pandemic, this was the odyssey facing the giant lock, his wife Ellie and their burgeoning clan. They crammed themselves into their vehicle and made the arduous trip from the south of France to Gray’s home city.
He returns to Warriors eight seasons after leaving, a pilgrimage that took in spells with Sale Sharks, Castres and Toulouse, where he won the Top 14. The club is a vastly different beast to the ambitious pretenders with meagre crowds that he left behind. Gray has changed too, but he hasn’t lost touch with his cultural heritage.
Ask the big fella what he missed most about Glasgow and he gives you the typical spiel about family and mates and cherished old haunts. It turns out, though, that the idyll and cuisine of Toulouse have nothing on Scotland’s culinary delights. “You miss having a roll and square sausage, having an Indian or a Chinese, just daft things but still home comforts,” he explained. “I’ve really missed that.”
Well, you can take the boy out of Glasgow. In choosing Warriors, there is the recognition that such huge calls are no longer based solely on rugby and personal goals. Fatherhood has changed Gray – how could it not? – and life has become centred on creating the best environment for Ellie and little Ostin to flourish.
He spoke to other clubs, but the support structure of home and the opportunity to make his mark on an evolving Glasgow team was too tempting for Gray to resist. “It moves from being all about me to being about my son and wife, they come first in the decisions,” he said.
“It was massively important for me to get in amongst family and friends and Ostin’s come back, he’s loving life, he’s seen everyone, close family, and he runs around the gardens having a great time. When you look at that, you think, yeah, this was the right move and the right thing to do.
“Prior to that, we had a lot of family coming over to France to visit us – I say us, it was really to visit him – and that was for a couple of weeks at a time. With the support network here, having a wee one changed a lot of things for us.
“From a rugby point of view, I just really wanted to get back in amongst this squad,” continued Gray. “I see how well they have been doing, speak to my brother Jonny quite a lot, he’s spoken really highly of Glasgow, how much he loved it, how good the coaching and strength and conditioning was. I just really fancied it. And fortunately enough for me, Glasgow wanted to take me on.”
As fate would have it, the elder sibling returns just as his brother is leaving. The hope is that Jonny Gray adds gears and snarl to his game at Exeter Chiefs in the way that Richie feels he blossomed in the Top 14.
There, he played with and pitted himself against some of the game’s very finest operators. He saw how relaxed the great All Black Jerome Kaino was before matches and resolved to worry less. He learned to lead and adapt and appreciate how culture could make or break a team.
France also opened his eyes to the eccentric, the utterly bonkers practices that still pervade the top division. “In the early days at Castres, I was doing a scrum session and the coach jumped on top of the scrum,” Gray said. “This guy was planking over the front row. Apparently, he was doing it to help the guys work on their balance and keep their chests up, but that was pretty mental.
“We had pre-match pizzas, which me and Johnnie Beattie would laugh about, but one night they weren’t there and we were both like, where are they? The pizzas had become part of the ritual.
“I speak about these crazy things but you need to remember that we went to Clermont in a semi-final, who hadn’t been beaten at home in 77 games, with the pre-match pizzas and the coach lying across the top of the scrum and we beat them. We went on to play a final against Toulon and lost narrowly, so who is right and who is wrong?
“If you can get the team culture right, everyone happy and moving in the right direction, that’s a huge part of the game.”
"Glasgow fans feared there was more chance of Danny Wilson announcing a new clothing line than a significant addition to his PRO14 squad, but along came a whopper of a re-signing"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 24, 2020
In the past three years, injuries have followed Gray like a wolf tracking a wounded bison. His hip, his back, his calf and his head all conspired to limit game time and stoke frustration. He was still a big part of the Toulouse team that won the league a year ago, but last played a competitive game in December and has only been seen in Scotland colours once since 2017.
With the birth of Ostin and the need for minutes, Gray chose not to join Scotland’s World Cup training camps. He might have added to his 66 caps during the Six Nations that followed but for concussion. Approaching his 31st birthday, he still has bags to offer at international level. But having played so little, and with Gregor Townsend’s supply of locks so bountiful, there are no guarantees.
“The desire is always there, but the priority is Glasgow,” Gray explained. “Every player will tell you that you need to play well for your club before looking at internationals. You also have to take into account that the Scotland second row is pretty strong at the moment. So let’s see what happens.
"And are you going to shell out £300-400k for a slightly-better-than-mediocre Super Rugby player, or do you develop young guys?"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 21, 2020
“I’m available. I suppose those conversations will happen over the next few months but first and foremost is to get back playing and trying to get a slot in this Glasgow squad. I don’t think I can get ahead of myself.”
The chats with incoming Warriors coach Danny Wilson have been invigorating. Wilson sees in Gray a Glasgow leader and a top-class lineout forward. Gray acknowledges a coach keen to exploit his expertise and give him more freedom in open prairie.
Back in his younger days, in the mud at Firhill, he was a rampaging monster in the loose. That edge dulled a little in France where he learned to be more selfless and was expected to be more bruiser than dazzler. Glasgow will deploy no such shackles.
“As the nitty-gritty of my game improved, the breaks and that sort of stuff were not as common, and I’d certainly like to get that back a little bit. That’s certainly one of the things I’d like to improve at Glasgow, who are such a good attacking side.
ICYMI | It might have been 8? years since his last appearance for Glasgow Warriors, but Richie Gray is ready to hit the ground running on his return to his hometown club.
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) July 10, 2020
“If you look at my role in the Toulouse team, my job first and foremost role was making sure that the ball was secured at a ruck, making sure we were tight in defence, making sure we won lineout ball because we have got guys like Maxime Medard, Cheslin Kolbe, Yoann Huget across the field who are making these 50, 60-metre breaks. My role was different. My role was doing my job so these guys could do theirs.
“I still think that’s massively important. That’s maybe something that’s changed over the years in my mindset – the simple parts of the game are so important and if they get overlooked then you can come unstuck. That’s something I want to continue but then again, I also want to improve on that attacking side and get back a little of what I had at Glasgow before. If I’m able to merge those together, I’ll be quite happy and in a good place.”
An injury-free Gray, powered by family, freedom and of course, square sausage, is a tantalising Glasgow and Scotland prospect.
"It's too generic. I don't think academies look at people as individuals. A lot of people would have looked at Darcy Graham two or three years ago and thought he was too small. That's rubbish"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 9, 2020
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