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Q&A – Jonny Gray: Exeter were after me two years ago but now felt like the right time

Exeter Chiefs lock Jonny Gray

Scotland lock Jonny Gray tells NEALE HARVEY why this is the right time for him to climb aboard Exeter’s bandwagon and press his claims for a Lions place next summer.

First, how’s the hand injury you suffered in your last match against England back in February?

It’s all good now and it’s been great to get back in and do some weights. It’s a different sort of start for me at Exeter and it’s been strange times with what’s been going on in the world, but the body’s feeling good. It’s felt weird coming into train in small groups and I still haven’t met all the guys, but we’re into stage two now and hopefully there’ll be more and more people at the club. I’ve been welcomed in very well and enjoyed it so far. All the players and coaches have been reaching out to me, which has been a really good feeling and bears out what people were telling me before I got here. They said that would be the case and it’s been a very good first impression.

The coronavirus lockdown in Scotland was much tighter than England’s, how did you cope with that before you finally got to head south recently?

What’s happened with Covid-19 has put a lot of things in perspective. Rugby’s just a game and my hat goes off to the front-line staff in the NHS for what they’ve done. There are so many key workers who I have the ultimate respect for. During the lockdown I was just trying to keep as busy as possible and focussing on key areas of my game. I had my rehab to do and I’ve been trying to stay fit, which has been a challenge for all players who’ve had to adapt during a difficult period. I’ve been lucky throughout my whole career to have good role models to follow, so I’ve been speaking to coaches and my brother and just tried to work with what I had available.

Big brother Richie is four years older, how much of an influence has he been?

Massive. He’s been there throughout for me on and off the field but just to see at first-hand growing up the effort he had to put in to get to where he is today – the attention to detail and stuff he does around his diet and all the extras he puts in – has been inspirational. Even when he’s been playing in France with Castres and Toulouse he’s still been a big influence – as has the whole family, especially my gran. She was a huge influence on me growing up but I love and respect my brother. He was the role model I needed and he showed me that there are no excuses. If you want to make it you have to try to work harder than everyone else and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

Ever imagine you’d end up playing for Scotland together?

It’s something people talked about when Richie started to break through, that one day I’d be there with him. You kind of laugh it off and never think it’s going to be true, but I remember him winning his first cap against France at home in 2010 and then three years later, against South Africa at Murrayfield, I’m singing the national anthem alongside him. It’s the best rugby highlight I’ve had in my career to date.

Back to your move south, wasn’t there some talk of a switch to Bristol two or three years ago?

No, not Bristol, it was Exeter back then as well and I spoke to Rob Baxter at the time. It just didn’t seem right then but from speaking to him subsequently and listening to the things he had to say about me, he was very honest with his feedback style about my game and it’s a decision I had to make now.

I’m very much looking forward to being at Exeter and from talking to people who’ve been involved with the club, like Matt Taylor, Scotland’s former defence coach who used to play here, exand players like Stuart Hogg, Sam Skinner and Moray Low, it’s a great place to be.

After those initial conversations with Rob a couple of years ago, I started watching Exeter a bit more, studying their style of play, and I’ve played against them a few times as well now. They’re a very tough team to play against and you felt that vibe and togetherness amongst them. I’m just looking forward to getting stuck into training now and fighting for selection when the games start again.

You won a PRO12 title with Glasgow in 2015 and played in a team which performed well in Europe at times, so how proud are you of your stint there?

I loved it and I’ll always look back on it fondly. I grew up there and to represent the city was a huge honour. Without the people around me, the coaches at Cambuslang Rugby Club through to the regional and district stuff, I wouldn’t have had the chance to play professional rugby at all – and there have been a lot of special people at Glasgow as well.

It was only when the lockdown started that one of my old team managers suggested I might potentially have played my last game for them against Sale Sharks back in January. That’s proved to be the case and I’m gutted about never having had the chance to play another game there to say goodbye and thank a lot of people for helping me get to where I am in my career. It’s disappointing for the players who are retiring as well but there have been bigger fish to fry in the world and the only thing I could do was to get back fit, work on my skills as best I could and be as strong and sharp as possible for when I came to Exeter.

There are a lot of good people in Glasgow and they’ll always be special to me, but to come to a club like Exeter now… well, you’ve seen how they’ve been playing over the last few years and they want to challenge for trophies and don’t shy away from saying that. It’s an opportunity for me to develop as a player and person and I’m relishing the challenge of playing with different players.

Is it right you had a somewhat embarrassing start to your junior rugby career at Cambuslang Rugby Club?

Ha! I’d gone down there with my friend Roy and his dad Chick. We started off playing football and used the rugby posts as goals, then Chick came out from the clubhouse and brought out a rugby ball. My first game I thought I scored a try diving over the line, only to realise I was on the halfway line. I had absolutely no clue what was going on.

But I owe a lot to Cambuslang for all they’ve done for me and I wouldn’t be where I was today if it wasn’t for them. I had good coaches there and I’ve had good coaches all the way through my professional career, too, like Gregor Townsend, Dave Rennie, Jonathan Humphreys, Danny Wilson and John Dalziel, who I worked with at age grade. I’ve learned a lot from all the coaches I’ve had at all levels.

What’s Rob Baxter said to you about aspects of your game you need to develop?

In the first conversation I had with him, he just summed up my game very well and was very straight-talking about what I could improve. It’s the sort of feedback you really need to hear and it’s designed to make you think and make yourself better. That’s what you get when you come down here and even though it’s only been a short time, you can see straight away that the cultures at Exeter and Glasgow are similar. Everyone wants to improve themselves so they can improve the team and do something special. The players and coaches here work very hard and there’s so much ambition and you feel that as soon as you come in, so I’ll look to improve all aspects of my game.

Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter
Persuasive and persistent: Jonny Gray was approached by Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter over a move two years ago. Getty Images

Happy to be linking up with Scotland colleagues Stuart Hogg, Sam Skinner and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne?

I try to avoid Hoggy as much as possible, he’s got far too much energy for me! Seriously, though, there’re all good people. I grew up playing age group rugby with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and then met Sam Skinner a couple of years ago when he first got into the Scotland squad.

‘Skins’ is an outstanding player with the skills he has on the ball and he can do pretty much everything. He can play second and back row and I remember watching him put a kick through on his international debut against Fiji and thinking ‘Wow!’, so he’s a very talented player. It was such a pity he picked up an injury before the World Cup because he was going very well at the time. As for Hoggy, he’s obviously someone I know very well from the years we’ve spent together with Glasgow and Scotland and he’s a man with boundless energy and incredible pace and talent. From the conversations I’ve had with him, he’s really enjoying it down here as well.

Logistically, Scotland boss Gregor Townsend recently expressed mixed feelings about having so many of his players down south. Your view on that?

I’ve spoken to Gregor and he was happy for me and gave it his blessing. Gregor’s got a very good relationship with all his players, as have all the coaches with Scotland, and he’s just looking forward to me gaining more experiences outside Scotland.

Gregor’s a great coach and I’ve worked with him throughout my whole professional career with Glasgow and Scotland. His attention to detail is second to none and, rest assured, he’ll be keeping a very close eye on what the Scottish guys are doing at Exeter, as well as those playing elsewhere.

It’s a while ago now but when you reflect on the 2019 World Cup and Scotland’s Pool stage exit, how big a disappointment was that?

It still hurts, if I’m being absolutely honest.

We had a clear goal of having a good group stage and getting through to the quarter-finals, but we couldn’t do it and it rankles.

It’s something we spoke about quite harshly when we reassembled for the Six Nations and you could see from the attitude of all the players and staff who went to Japan how much better we knew we all had to be. We talked a lot about addressing things we needed to work on, like defence, and we knew we had to front-up in the Six Nations, to not shy away from it and meet the challenge head on.

Dejected: Scotland stars Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn at the end of their World Cup exit. Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images

That feeling of letting people down, letting ourselves down and letting Scotland down, that’s what it felt like after the World Cup and that will never go away. Conversely, that’s something that drives us now and in the Six Nations we had open conversations and went to work straight away.

Ireland away first-up was a massive challenge but we played really well and had opportunities to win. There were more encouraging signs against England in a match played in horrible conditions that could have gone either way, and then to beat Italy and France, with the defensive resolve we showed in both those games, was a real step forward.

The World Cup will never be forgotten but it’s exciting times for the future now and we know we have plenty of improvement left in us.

You’ve never played in the Premiership before but from playing English teams in the past, what are you expecting now?

I’m really not too sure. Glasgow played against English teams in Europe and I’ve played against sides like Exeter, Saracens and Leicester with mixed results, but cup competitions are a bit different and the Premiership will be all new to me. There’ll be different venues, different teams and I’ll experience many varying styles of rugby, but that’s what’s exciting about it because to learn about that, challenge myself to adapt and compete against the talent in the league here and the quality of teams in the Premiership is one of the main reasons for coming here.

Your brother had a crack with the British & Irish Lions in Australia in 2013, how good would it be for you to get on next year’s tour of South Africa?

When you’re playing at Chiefs with the internationals they have in guys like Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Hoggy and many others, there’s top quality here and everyone has those ambitions – the club encourages it.

I’m just excited about the challenge of trying to get into this team and then, hopefully, going up against some of the leading players in England. I just want to try and soak it all up within the environment of being in a new team and if anything comes on the back of that, then brilliant.

As you said, Chiefs never hide their ambitions of winning Premierships and Champions Cups. How refreshing is that and how much are you relishing competing against top English locks and international stars like Adam Coleman and Lood de Jager?

There are so many top-quality second rows right across the Premiership and to play against that talent with all the different styles can only benefit my game.

As for the ambition, it’s been told to me straight away what our players and coaches are thinking and how driven they are in what they want to achieve. They don’t shy away from it and when you actually come here you get a feeling of that togetherness and direction and I’m really looking forward to learning more about the club and the way they like to play.

The guys seem to have a lot of fun and a lot of laughs but when it comes to training everyone switches on and it’s very, very focussed. You feel there’s something special here and there are a lot of big games to be played, so I just want to be part of that.

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