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Gray keeps his feet on the ground

Given the altitude he achieves by the simple act of standing up, Richie Gray should be used to breathing thin air by now.

Richie Gray is confident that Scotland are ready for the challenge posed by Ireland today  Photograph: SNS
Richie Gray is confident that Scotland are ready for the challenge posed by Ireland today Photograph: SNS

But the rarefied atmosphere of being part of a Scotland team who have not just won a game, but are widely expected to kick on and win a few more, is a rather more novel experience for the mighty lock.

So what's it like up there, Richie? Feeling dizzy? Feeling light-headed? Maybe feeling just a little apprehensive about the possibility of Scotland winning back-to-back Six Nations matches for the first time in almost a dozen years? How does the weight of expectation sit on those big, broad shoulders of yours?

A 6ft 9in haystack-haired powerhouse is never going to match anyone's idea of a typical Scotsman, but Gray has endured some typically Scottish disappointments and the odd typically Scottish calamity over the course of a three-year Test career that has brought him 29 caps. In other words, while thrashing Italy a fortnight ago was an impressive feat, it was also the kind of thing that can summon a certain sense of foreboding.

But not in Gray. "We are not scared of being a good team," he says firmly. "It's a balance of taking confidence from it but not getting carried away."

Given the feebleness of the Italians, that is probably not a bad outlook. But if today's match against Ireland is the one in which we really learn something about the current Scotland team, it is also a massively important occasion for Gray as an individual. In some eyes, the 23-year-old lock has slipped down the British Isles pecking order, even to the point where he is no longer the shoo-in certainty for the Lions that he seemed a year ago. But if he is even remotely close to his best today then he will book his passage to Australia.

Of course, he denied that the Lions are in his thoughts. Players always do. And every single one of them is talking codswallop because they all know that playing for the Lions is still the pinnacle. Some might dream of winning a World Cup, but they also have to dream of being part of a golden generation because you don't win World Cups on your own. Gray might appreciate a leg-up from his Scotland mates, but getting on that tour is, fundamentally, down to him.

If his move to Sale Sharks last summer was meant to be the start of the climb then it would be an exaggeration to say he even got stuck at base camp. Salford's finest made a dog's breakfast of the new season, cementing themselves to the bottom of the Aviva Premiership table by losing their first seven games on the trot. Things have turned round a little recently – before their loss to Harlequins on Friday, they had won three of their previous four league matches – but they still hold that bottom slot. If they are still there at the end of the season, Gray will almost certainly move on, with French side Castres leading the race to sign him.

Does he regret the move to Sale? Even by his famously sleepy standards, Gray is in an unusually laconic mood, but he bristles visibly at the suggestion. "No," he says sharply. "Looking back to when I made the decision, I made it to try a new league and a new challenge and work on certain aspects of my game. And I have been given that in the Premiership. Obviously things haven't gone to plan this year with regards to results but they are starting to come good and we're more in form now."

The particular improvements Gray was looking for were in his tight play. It is all very well being a whirling dervish or a human threshing machine in the loose, but a lock earns his crust at close quarters, adding grunt in the scrum, muscle in the maul and a bit of old-fashioned ferocity at the breakdown.

At Glasgow, you were more likely to notice him sashaying down the wing than steaming into a ruck, but he feels he has added layers to his game at Sale.

The presence of Jim Hamilton in the Scottish second row may give Gray licence to whirl and thresh a little more for his country than he does for his club. Hamilton's selfless, Stakhanovite shift against Italy was one of the major reasons behind Scotland's dominance at the breakdown. Overall, there was a powerful impression that the lock combination, a pairing with a com-bined heft of close to 40st, was starting to pull its weight at Test level.

Will we see more of the same today? Ireland have lost Mike McCarthy from their second row, but the arrival of the great, galumphing figure that is Donncha O'Callaghan does not weaken them greatly. O'Callaghan's Munster mate Donnacha Ryan has been named by none other than Jim Telfer as a Lions lock in the making. Scotland should still have an edge in the battle of the boilerhouse, but it will be fierce.

"It was a pretty bruising encounter," said Gray of Ireland's 12-6 defeat by England in Dublin two weeks ago. "The conditions weren't great. It certainly looked a tough match but I think Ireland will be hurting from that match and will be coming to Murrayfield with a point to prove. They will certainly come out of the blocks in the first 20 minutes.

"Ireland I rate very highly. I have played them a couple of times and they are a very good team. They have very good structure and some dangerous players across the board that can hurt you. They are a very dangerous side so it's a tough challenge this weekend but one we are certainly up to."

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