These past two years, Richie Gray has been cruelly besieged by injury, his back, his calf and his hip doing their damnedest to keep Scotland’s enormous second-row on the sidelines. Just as he overcame one complaint, up would crop another.
It was maddening stuff.
Gray has only played one Test since the 2017 Six Nations – a 27-minute outing off the bench in Rome last March – and prior to January, managed just an hour of club rugby for Toulouse this season.
He knows only too well the ruthless nature of sport, how quickly it can knock you on your rear and how long and painstaking the road back can be.
Gray’s most recent operation came in October, a “tidy-up” of that troublesome hip which he says is finally putting an end to its months of grumbling.
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“It had been niggling for a long time. It was causing me some issues, kind of hampering performance, so we took the decision to get it done. It wasn’t a huge thing and it’s feeling better and better.
“Back-to-back injuries are never great. From a mental point of view it’s very frustrating. From a physical point of view, it’s also difficult because you build yourself back up from injury and then you need to start again. All the progress, you lose. That’s sport – you just have to get on with it.”
Gray is back now – not just fit-again but playing regular rugby for the first time in what must feel like an age. He made his return in late January and has played six games, four as a starter, in a Toulouse team motoring at the Top 14 summit and fizzing their way into the semi-finals of the Champions Cup.
His return to fitness and form this time around has been slower than before. Only now is his game getting to a point he deems acceptable.
“Performances, my fitness and sensation with my body have certainly picked up in the last two games, which I’m pretty happy with. It’s taken four or five games to get there but I’m starting to get back to a level I’m reasonably happy with and I hope I can continue to pick it up for the rest of the season in what are some huge games.
“When I came back from my last injury, I came back to that level a lot quicker, but when you have an injury and you back it up with another injury – I didn’t expect it to take this time but it took a bit longer. That’s probably natural given the previous year.
“You’re desperate to get back out on the pitch but you are tentative about coming back. You can replicate as much as you want in training but it’s never the same as a game. That’s always difficult, trying to feel your way back into it playing against a guy that’s trying to run over the top of you.
“At this stage it’s just about improving what I can for the team, so hopefully I can improve line-out performance, which will be huge in these big-pressure games, it needs to function well, and just being solid at rucks, defence and ball-carrying whenever I get the opportunity. I’m not going to put pressure on myself to make 40-50m breaks, just being solid at the basics.”
In that time on the sidelines, Gray shed “four or five kilos”, although he isn’t particularly sure how or why that beef disappeared. He reckons he’s sharper for it, and a little more equipped to delivering the all-court game demanded of the modern lock, and encouraged by Toulouse and Scotland.
“I don’t know why, but I’ve slimmed down a little bit, and I feel better for it. You feel lighter and with rugby these days, that’s the way it’s going.
“If you look at the best guys in my position, the Brodie Retallicks, these guys aren’t carrying a huge amount of weight but they get around the park well. You take a James Ryan, who is someone with a massive engine and not a huge 22-stone second-row, but he’s getting about the park and he’s doing the work.”
Naturally, Gregor Townsend and his forwards coach Danny Wilson have been keeping an eye on Gray. The Six Nations came a little too soon, and with lock a position of great strength for Scotland, there was a mutual understanding that rushing him back into the Test mix was to nobody’s gain.
There is, however, a World Cup on the horizon and an almighty second-row scrap brewing to get into Townsend’s squad. Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis have been imperious for Edinburgh and Scotland. Sam Skinner and Tim Swinson are explosive and versatile. We know all about younger brother Jonny Gray and his stupendous work rate, and his response to being dropped – for pretty much the first time in his professional career – has been emphatic.
The elder Gray brings something different to all of them, particularly with his immense line-out presence, but he doesn’t dare let his mind linger on the prospect of making the plane to Japan. Not with his injury record. Not with two colossal opportunities for silverware beckoning.
“Gregor and I get in touch often, we were in touch over the Six Nations period but we both realised that I wasn’t ready to play international rugby,” he says. “And the second-rows who were playing were in very good form. I think it was the best decision all-round that I stayed away.
“They spoke about improvements that I can make in my game, they were aware I was coming back from injuries and wanted me to build that confidence, build that fitness. They’ve given me a couple of pointers going forward that I can work on.
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) June 18, 2016
“At the moment, the top priority is trying to win something with Toulouse. And I’m sure that everyone says it, but it’s about playing well for your club and then hopefully you can be in a position to challenge for a World Cup spot.
“You can have a little glance at it, but you can’t think too much about five months down the line. It’s all about this weekend against Clermont and next weekend against Leinster.”
This season, Toulouse have blossomed into a swaggering, swashbuckling juggernaut, a side just as comfortable steam-rolling you from five yards as they are conjuring outrageous sorcery from 50.
Their desire to play at pace, off-loading and sweeping through teams is not entirely unlike Townsend’s blueprint for Scotland. Antoine Dupont, Cheslin Kolbe, Thomas Ramos, Sofiane Guitoune, Lucas Tauzin – these are exhilarating backs that can cleave you open from anywhere.
Toulouse have beaten Racing 92 in Paris twice. The most recent of those triumphs came a fortnight ago when they won the Champions Cup quarter-final with 14 men and scored a try for the ages. They’ve lost two games since September and are five points clear at the top of the league table. This grand old totem of the French rugby hasn’t clinched silver since 2012 but what a shot they have now at bringing back the glory.
“First of all, I must say that our backline in particular is incredible,” Gray says. “You look at Cheslin Kolbe, one of the best attacking rugby players I’ve ever seen. He’s very good all-round, but his feet, his breaks, his speed – he’s unbelievable, incredible. Other guys like Zack Holmes at 10 pulling the strings, Sofiane Guitoune at 13 who has been incredible this season. There’s just so much pace in that backline and so much skill that when the game breaks up, it really does suit them.
“Our training’s changed a little bit, we’re doing a lot of unstructured stuff which we’re seeing coming out. Some of the tries from the Racing game, I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s all coming from training.
“Every team has shape, but it’s literally the coaches launching a ball in, you don’t know where, you don’t know who for, it’s just about, right, play some rugby. Never look to take contact, always look to get the ball out of your hands, get by contact, off-load – a very French way of doing things, and doing that at speed. You’re seeing some combinations happening in training and guys are not afraid to try things and that’s happening at the weekend as well.
“We’ve got a great group of youngsters who won the Under-20 World Cup, so you’ve got a lot of academy guys coming through who are young and enthusiastic.
“The confidence and morale around the group has gone up. All of these things have come to pass and you’re seeing the results just now.”
The next two weekends are enormous for Toulouse and will tell much about the extent of their glorious revolution.
Clermont rock up at Stade Ernest-Wallon on Sunday for a seismic top-of-the-table showdown. Then it’s off to Dublin for a semi-final and the monstrous challenge of dumping the European champions out in their own back yard.
“You’ve got two games which will really show us where we’re at,” Gray says.
“Clermont coming to us this weekend, first versus second, then Leinster away, and there’s no bigger challenge than that. But I genuinely believe we can do something pretty special.”
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