Scottish rugby may have already failed its most significant test of the season as Richie Gray announced his decision to join Sale Sharks next season.
Retaining the Glasgow Warrior, already capped 16 times and one of the hottest properties in European rugby, was perhaps the most important task of the year but the 22-year-old has instead opted to join the Scottish enclave at Edgeley Park, the base of Scotland’s two Dundonian internationalists Ally Dickinson and Richie Vernon, as well as Dunfermline-born Scotland A player Fraser McKenzie.
It’s a significant blow to Scottish domestic rugby as the 6ft 10in lock had in a little over two seasons become the face of the game north of the border, and Scotland head coach Andy Robinson had publicly stated that keeping Gray in Scotland at the end of his current contract was his top priority.
Gray said the decision was not about money, with Scottish Rugby and Glasgow Warriors stressing that the package they had tabled to the player to extend his stay with his hometown club was ”substantial and competitive.”
Instead, following ”the hardest call of my career”, Gray has gone to the English Aviva Premiership to seek new challenges.
He said: ”I’d like to put on record my thanks to Glasgow Warriors for the support they’ve given me in all aspects of my life as a professional rugby player. Being a proud Glaswegian, it’s been a massive honour to wear the blue and black jersey. I was impressed by the efforts that the club and Scottish Rugby made to keep me here, and it’s without doubt the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.
”This isn’t about money: I’ve always been keen to test myself in England, and I feel this is a good opportunity to do so. It’s a positive thing for all concerned to have clarity on the situation, and my full focus remains on helping Glasgow continue our excellent recent run.”
Both Scottish Rugby chief Mark Dodson and Warriors CEO Kenny Baillie said they had done all they could to convince Gray to stay.
Dodson said: ”There’s naturally disappointment on our side because we’re committed to keeping our top players in Scotland and Richie comes into that category. We did everything in our power to hold on to him, but we respect his decision and look forward to supporting him as a key component of the national team.
”I’d like to reassure supporters of the professional teams that we will be doing everything in our power to support our coaches in securing the leading players at both Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh on long-term contracts, because we want to consolidate the clubs’ position as competitive, regularly winning entities in the RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup.”
Baillie said detailed discussions had been ongoing with the players for several months, culminating in an ”extremely competitive and prompt contract renewal offer” being made.
”We’re clearly very disappointed that Richie has decided to move on at the end of the season,” he added. ”A concerted effort to retain his services has been made across many weeks by a significant number of people within Glasgow Warriors and Scottish Rugby.
”The package we presented to him was certainly substantial from both a playing and financial point of view, and Richie has informed us that this was an extremely difficult decision to make.
”We’ll be sad to see him go, but it’s important to emphasise that Glasgow Warriors are far from a one-man team, and Richie’s departure will not affect our and Scottish Rugby’s commitment to ensuring the club continues to grow on and off the field.”
Glasgow had been successful in securing key young players on contract extensions this year with fly-halves Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir and back row forward Rob Harley agreeing new terms, while at Edinburgh Greig Laidlaw and a number of promising young players have also been retained.
However Gray was clearly their jewel in the crown, and the failure to retain him heaps pressure on Murrayfield to offer terms to secure other top home-based Scots out of contract at the end of this season, including current internationalists John Barclay and Nick De Luca.
Photo Lynne Cameron/PA Archive