Rugby World Cup 2015: Richie Gray on facing native Scotland

By Andy BurkeBBC Scotland
Richie Gray eyes downfall of fellow Scots at World Cup
Rugby World Cup Pool B: South Africa v Scotland
Venue: St James' Park, Newcastle Date: Saturday 3 October Kick-off: 16:45 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio Scotland, plus live text commentary on BBC Sport website

When Richie Gray was handed the opportunity of a lifetime to join the South Africa coaching staff in 2013, head coach Heyneke Meyer left the Scot in no doubt regarding the magnitude of the job he was being offered.

"I remember when it hit me,'' Gray says. ''Heyneke took me out to the centre spot and he said: 'This opportunity could pretty much change your life, your family's lives. If you do well, it's going to be really good for you. If you fail, you will never coach again and your methods will be destroyed.' So no pressure, eh?''

Into the third year of his stint as the Springboks breakdown coach, Gray is now plotting the downfall of his countrymen in Scotland's clash with the two-time world champions at St James' Park on Saturday.

From coaching his hometown club of Galashiels to being hired by one of the powerhouses of world rugby, to describe Gray's rise in the game as meteoric would scarcely do it justice, but it's only part of his remarkable story.

A good player in his day, Gray led his hometown club to Scottish Cup success in 1999, captaining future Scotland internationals Chris Paterson and Nathan Hines.

"A big, ugly second-row who gave away a few too many penalties for my liking," Paterson jokes when asked for his memories of playing with Gray for the Scottish Borders' side.

Richie Gray in the background during South Africa's World Cup training
Gray is working behind the scenes with the aim of leading South Africa to the World Cup final

"Richie was an inspirational captain, he really was. He was so passionate about the team, about the town and he was a real figurehead in more ways than one. To play under him at Gala for three years was great.

"He had a great rugby brain, so not only was he the captain and a mate, he actually helped you individually as well and helped the progress of my career."

That rugby brain meant that, although Gray never quite made the grade as a professional player, he was destined to make the leap into coaching.

Influenced among others by the great Jim Telfer, Gray began to make a name for himself as part of the Scottish Rugby structure by coaching national age-grade teams before taking a development role with the Border Reivers, Scotland's ill-fated third professional team, which was disbanded in 2007.

"I'd coached the Scotland Under-16s, the 18s, the 19s. You were on a progression and then sadly it came to an end," Gray says.

"We were all based here with the Border Reivers and sadly the team was not required any more, financially or for whatever reason, so it was a pretty sad time to be honest. But in some ways it toughens you up for professional sport. It's not all nice."

Some are left to wonder - especially given what he's achieved in the game subsequently - why such a talented coach was allowed to be lost to the Scottish game.

So does he carry any lingering resentment about the way things ended?

World Cup Pool B
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"Not really," he says. "It still sort of sits with you now that I think we still had something special going here.

"When I meet some of the lads and players that were involved here, there's always a fair bit of emotion about it. But you can't carry grudges for too long."

Gray took his redundancy from the Scottish Rugby Union and, with no job and a pregnant wife at home, wondered where his career could go there.

It's safe to say coaching the likes of Bryan Habana and Victor Matfield wouldn't have figured in Gray's thinking at this particular juncture.

Already a regular media figure, he fronted Scottish Television's coverage of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

STV then asked if he'd be interested in becoming a football commentator, going so far as to have him shadow the legendary commentator, Archie McPherson, but Gray's rugby roots meant that he would always be drawn back to his first sporting love.

After a spell in charge of his hometown club, Gray began analysing footage of rugby matches in forensic detail, focusing on an area of the game that he felt was crucial to the outcome of any match and yet was largely ignored in coaching sessions - the breakdown.

Using the garage at his home in Gala as his workspace, Gray set about developing his very own piece of training equipment, designed to improve technique in breakdown play.

Richie Gray during South Africa training
Gray has designed 13 pieces of equipment to help rugby teams around the world

In 2011, 'The Collision King' - a machine which allows players to practise technique at the breakdown - was launched and is currently used by most of the world's top clubs and countries. Gray now combines coaching duties with the development of training aids for numerous aspects of the game.

"I'm now up to about 13 bits of kit and they're all over the world," he says. "It's crazy to think that inventing something in your garage brought you right back into international rugby coaching, but I was always a coach."

Having known and admired Gray for several years, Meyer brought the Scot on board to rectify what he saw as a weakness in his side's work in the tackle area.

Gray's contract with South Africa expires after the World Cup and his - and Meyer's - future will depend on how the Springboks perform in the tournament. The shock opening-game loss to Japan means there is no room for sentiment when Gray meets his countrymen on Saturday.

"It's always difficult to coach against your own club, your own province or your own country," he admits. "You'd be totally ignoring that fact if you tried to play around it.

"I'm a proud Scotsman. I've coached most of the players that play there but, in the world of professionalism I want my team to be the world's best team.

"So that is a game you've just got to win. That's it. If Scotland get to the knockout stages, that's great, but I'm only concerned with one team."

You can watch the Richie Gray interview on Saturday Sportsday on Saturday at 12:50 BST on BBC One, straight after Football Focus.

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