Rich pickings for Sale as man mountain Gray to add more bite to Sharks attack
20:52 GMT, 31 August 2012
Richie Gray will make his grand
entrance into the Aviva Premiership with Sale in Devon as a massive man
with a suitably colossal pedigree. His new club believe they have
recruited 'the best player in Britain'.
He's just turned 23, but the Scotland lock has already acquired a formidable status. The resurgent
Sharks have trumpeted his arrival as their 'marquee' signing (which is
saying something given they also welcomed Danny Cipriani) and he is
highly prized north of the border as a towering figurehead of the
Scotland team, to the extent that his departure from Glasgow at the end
of last season provoked grave consternation.
Hair apparant: Richie Gray
And then there's the Lions factor. There are still nine months to go before the class of 2013 set off for Australia, but many regard Gray as a virtual shoo-in for the Test team. The common view around the home nations is that the second-row equation = Gray + AN Other, such is the 24-cap Scot's supreme quality.
For the league he has joined, there is a different slant to the Lions issue.
Right now, with the season about to begin, ask informed rugby folk to predict the XV for the opening clash with the Wallabies in Brisbane, and Gray would feature in most, if not all, of the hypothetical line-ups. In that, he is surely alone among Premiership players, with the possible exception of Tom Croft.
It is impossible to overstate his
value as a blue-chip addition to the English game and eventually he may
come to be regarded as among the finest imports to grace the elite
Yet, he begins
this stage of his career as the focal point for so much acclaim and
expectation that living with it all brings its own fierce pressure.
Fortunately, he is a laid-back type, not fazed by all the fuss.
What of being the marquee man at Sale 'I'm not bothered about that, it's just words, it isn't a big issue, he said. 'I don't think about it too much, but it's good to get praised, of course.'
Gray is aware of his standing as a talisman for Scottish rugby too, adding: 'I'm pretty comfortable with that, but it's weird because I still feel like the same person. I still look up to the guys around me and still feel like a young guy in the set-up, so it is strange to be seen that way.'
He brushes off the Test-Lion-in-waiting tag, but puts aside the usual week-by-week, game-by-game mantras to acknowledge the tour's place in his distant vision. 'It's nice for people to say that about me, but I don't want to jinx myself,' he said.
'Of course, looking at the season ahead, the Lions is a big goal for me. Playing for the Lions is something I've really set my sights on.'
Gray (left) was possibly the most sought-after player in Europe last season, as his contract with Glasgow was coming to an end.
A host of wealthy French clubs and several English suitors tried to entice him their way, but he chose Sale having been convinced of the club's vision and his place in it by chief executive Steve Diamond.
He says he wanted to come to England to enhance his ability in the more gruelling elements of the game.
'The draw for me was to improve on the tight aspects of my play up front,' he said.
'I felt that the Premiership was the best place to develop in that area. I spoke to a lot of guys down here and they made the point that it is so tough week-in, week-out, and that it is a hugely physical battle in every game. That's what I'm here for and I'm looking forward to it.'
He may be 6ft 10in and almost 20 stone, but it's not just stature that makes Gray stand out, it's also down to his vivid hair-style, courtesy of dye which is classed as 'silver-blond', apparently.
'Thankfully, I don't get myself in trouble too much on the pitch, so it doesn't attract the referee's attention,' he joked. 'The hair's just been a habit for years. At 15, everyone at school was getting hair highlights, so I thought, “I'll give that a go”. It was a trend and I've kept it going.'
If the hair isn't standard-issue for a big, tough lock, neither is one of his outside interests.
Gray is – or certainly has been – a fan of Glee (an American musical-comedy TV series set in a high school, for the uninitiated) and this particular, occasionally interactive sideline may come in handy on the long journey back from Exeter to Manchester this evening. 'I used to watch it quite a bit,' he said. 'Maybe I got an album bought for me, too!
'I enjoyed it and would sometimes sing along . . . badly!
'I've not had to sing anything in front of the squad here yet but I certainly did up in Glasgow, and I'm pretty sure it will happen here at some point. We've got a five-hour bus trip home on Saturday, so I can imagine they might try to get a song out of me then.'
When Gray was growing up as an aspiring rugby player, he looked across the border to Martin Johnson for inspiration. Now, his own giant strides in the game are igniting the ambition of his younger brother, Jonny. A recent spot of sibling grappling showed him that the 18-year-old – already 6ft 6in and 19 stone – is rapidly gaining the necessary physical attributes.
'He's just got back from New Zealand,' said Richie.
'He spent six months playing there, for a club in Christchurch, and now he's signed for Glasgow. They're expecting big things from him and he keeps telling me he's going to push me out of the (Scotland) team eventually.
'A couple of weeks ago I was back home to see my family and he challenged me to a wrestle. He's getting a lot closer but he hasn't won one yet! It would be brilliant if we ended up playing together in the second row for Scotland.'
Not so brilliant for other leading rugby nations. For the time being, one Gray is more than enough for them to contend with and more than enough to add a new dimension to the Premiership.