Gary Graham has decided he’s Scottish after all, and the Newcastle flanker courted by England last year joined up with the Scotland squad at Oriam yesterday.
Officially, the 26-year-old son of former Scotland prop and coach George is a replacement for concussion victim Blade Thomson, but it seems in the last few weeks he let Gregor Townsend know his intentions – a process, according to assistant coach Matt Taylor, which had been going on for some weeks.
But there will be eyebrows aplenty raised as Graham – born in Stirling and a Scotland Under-20 cap – last season had been called up by Eddie Jones to the England training squad and declared himself to have abandoned his previous allegiance.
“I’d (expletive) love to play against Scotland next week, make 1,000 tackles and shove it in their face — but it might have to wait until next year,” he told an English newspaper last February, although the presence of his passionately Scottish father at the interview does give credence to the suggestion there was more than a little winding-up going on.
In any case, next year he might in fact be playing for Scotland and shoving it in the face of the English, who had him in their Six Nations camp at the outset of the championship but not at the end, and then didn’t select him to tour South Africa.
Left uncapped, he’s free to join up with Scotland, although he may be as much as tenth in the queue for a back row spot once everyone is fit.
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“I’m Scottish through-and-through but England asked me first as I’m eligible through residency,” he said in a statement released by Scottish Rugby. “It would have been a silly opportunity to pass up, as I hadn’t been selected for a Scotland squad since U20s.
“I’m absolutely delighted to get this opportunity. I phoned Gregor to assure him I wanted to play for Scotland, and always wanted to play for my country. It’s where I’m from and where I played most of my rugby.”
Townsend had already remarked that he thought Graham’s comments had been “taken out of context” and according to assistant coach Matt Taylor they’d had their eye on him for some time.
“Gregor’s had the one-on-one conversations,” said Taylor. “The other coaching staff haven’t been involved in that, but the key thing for us is that he contacted Gregor, he wants to be selected for Scotland, he feels very Scottish, his family’s very Scottish.
“I was lucky enough to play with his Dad George for the Borders and he will be extremely proud today, there’s no doubt about that. He’s a very passionate Scot.”
Graham’s commitment would be obvious when he got in camp on the training field, and he might come into consideration for Saturday’s game against South Africa, added Taylor.
“I didn’t actually read his comments before, but from what people tell me I think he was trying to wind up his Dad, it was a little bit tongue in cheek,” he said.
“It might be early for him, but you could have said the same about Sam Skinner last week and he did all right.
“A lot of the back-rowers, particularly on the weekend did pretty well, but it’s like anything, you sit down, you work who you have, what they’re going to bring and combinations, cohesion, all those type of things.
“So you can read into that as you would in terms of someone coming in, but everyone’s in the squad to be picked from.”
If Graham has been turned back to Scotland, it may be that scrum-half Ben Vellacott and the highly-rated stand-off Cameron Redpath – son of former Scotland captain Bryan – who have been involved in England squads might be convinced to wear dark blue again as neither of them have yet been capped.
“With Ben, Gregor’s definitely spoken to him, I’m not sure about Cameron,” said Taylor. “But we haven’t been speaking about Ben so much because we have a good group of nines at the moment.
“Gregor takes a lot of time to get to know the guys (who are dual qualified), he’s very good at that, he sounds them out and gets a feeling of what their commitment is and how they feel about Scotland. He’s done that with Gary and he’s happy about that.”
Jamie Ritchie – unquestionably a rival for a back row slot after excellent performances in the first two games of the Autumn Tests – expects Graham to get the traditional welcome to the squad.
“The one thing that happens with anyone who comes into the squad, whether it be academy guys coming in to train or new guys being selected, the first quad meeting they are welcomed with a round of applause,” said the 22-year-old.
“That would be the only thing that happens. Everyone shakes hands and we get to work.”
As far as he was concerned, Graham would only be in the squad for a good reason.
“He deserves to be here if he’s selected,” he added. “This will be the first time I’ve met Gary properly. I think I played against him when he was playing for Gala and I was playing for Heriot’s when I’d just joined Edinburgh. I’ve never really had a conversation with him.
“It will be good to get to know him. I’m sure there will be a few gags about it, but it’ll just be a laugh.”