If Richie Gray came from New Zealand, you’d still be thinking that he’s right up there with any of their players to keep an eye on. Instead, he’s from Scotland and there’s no competition whatsoever.
First things first: he’s an absolutely enormous chap. Standing 207cm [6’9½”] tall and weighing in [on a zoo’s scales] at 129kg [20st4lbs] at twenty-two years old, he’s one of the biggest players ever to step foot on an international rugby pitch. Putting that in some sort of perspective, that’s 4cm taller and 7kg heavier than Simon Shaw. Cripes.
Secondly, the lad can play a serious game of rugby. He’s a phenomenal lineout jumper, as you might expect, but he’s got it all: workrate, physicality, handling skills and athleticism. Too good to be true?
Paunchy ex-Lions hero Jerry Guscott described him as “slow, cumbersome and like Bambi on ice” before the Six Nations, and while the mild mannered Gray didn’t take it personally [“His views may have been justified. There could have been certain games I played in that he’s watched and picked up things”], he certainly made the well-nourished pundit look foolish with his performances.
He took home the Man of the Match Award against Italy in Scotland’s only win of the tournament, and performed so well in Paris against France that the home fans started cheering him. Seriously. It was Winston Whineray versus the BaaBaas stuff.
Having represented Scotland at every age-group on the way up, Gray debuted for the senior team off the bench against France in the 2010 Six Nations at twenty years of age [going up against Lionel Nallet and Pascal Pape – good luck] and got his first start against New Zealand in November of that year. He hasn’t looked back. Along with Imanol Harinordoquy, he surely has to rank as the pre-eminent lineout artist in the Northern Hemispere: he took three opposition throws against Ireland and three more against Italy in the 2011 Six Nations.
He also racked up a double-figure tackle count in all four matches he played in, which speaks volumes for his work rate, even if it doesn’t necessarily describe how important some of them were.
In the Mole’s opinion, this guy has the potential to be … I was going to say the next John Eales, but there’s really only ever going to be one John Eales when you consider his near-flawless captaincy and outrageous place-kicking ability. However, in purely second-row terms, I think that Gray could actually be a better player at the position than Eales, if he lives up to his potential. He’s showing every sign of doing just that.
Personally, I think it’s doubtful that the moribund Scottish domestic scene can keep him playing in front of home crowds, or even if it’d be good for him. I’m not sure that either Edinburgh or Glasgow are ‘sleeping giants’ in the same way that people often used to refer to Leinster before they started winning things; people forget that the Cappuccino Cowboys were regular Heineken Cup quarter-finalists for a good few years before they won it. Even a Glasgow team built around a Gray-Kellock axis that have been successful at international level won’t necessarily bring them flocking to Firhill.
A good world cup, and this guy has Bakkies Botha-esque figures [c.€750k p.a.] flashing in front of his eyes from the likes of Racing Metro … and rightly so. He’s a magnificent player already, and he’ll probably get a good bit better yet.