Two of the most promising young talents in Scottish rugby have been given the opportunity to immerse themselves in New Zealand rugby and culture after today being named as the recipients of this season’s prestigious John Macphail Scholarship.
Lock Jonny Gray (Hamilton) and stand-off Gregor Hunter (Edinburgh Rugby) will spend 18 weeks in Christchurch, playing for local clubs and benefiting from the high-end facilities and coaching offered by the Canterbury RFU International High Performance Unit.
The good news comes at a an extra special time for Jonny Gray having signed a two-year Elite Development (EDP) contract with Glasgow Warriors, committing him to the club until 2014.
Gray said: “It’s a massive honour to be offered these two development opportunities at the same time, I’m very grateful to be given the chance to take my rugby forward.
“I can’t wait to get out to New Zealand and make the most of the visit and to experience southern hemisphere rugby before joining up with the Warriors and continuing my development.”
Hunter said: "This is a really great opportunity for me and I'm looking to make the most of the trip.
"Rugby is such a massive part of life in New Zealand and I'm determined to grasp this chance."
Jonny - younger brother of Scotland international second-row forward Richie Gray - and Gregor Hunter will also be joined for five weeks by Scottish Rugby’s regional academy coach and Scotland under-16 assistant coach, Ben Fisher, who will be given a series of coaching opportunities with the Crusaders.
The trio will receive specialist support from members of the coaching staff at the Crusaders, the most successful side in Super 15 history.
Kenneth Ferguson, Director of the Robertson Scholarship Trust, said: “It gives me great pleasure to announce the recipients of the 2012 John Macphail Rugby Scholarship.
“Last year as part of our 50th Anniversary we increased the number of recipients of the awards to include players and a coach. This was so successful that we decided to continue the increased level of funding in conjunction with the Scottish Rugby Elite Player Development (EDP) programme.
“Once again we very much look forward to seeing the all-round development the time in New Zealand will give these young players. We are also looking forward to seeing how Ben’s coaching skills develop and in turn help the game in Scotland”
“Along with the Trustees, the Macphail family continue to take a close, personal interest in the development of each player and coach both while they are in Christchurch and after their return.”
Among those sharing their expertise will be Todd Blackadder, the one-time All Black captain and Edinburgh Rugby player/head coach, ex-New Zealand prop Dave Hewett, who followed Blackadder to the Scottish capital and then back to Canterbury, and Daryl Gibson, the one-time Glasgow Warriors centre who is now an assistant coach with the south island franchise.
Gibson’s fellow former All Blacks centre Aaron Mauger and lock Norm Maxwell, together with two-time Super 12-winning hooker Matt Sexton, will also be on hand.
In addition, each of the visiting youngsters will be assigned an individual mentor and will be able to call on full strength and conditioning, performance analysis and medical support.
The Macphail Scholarship, now entering its eighth year, was established in memory of former Scotland hooker John Macphail, who died in 2004. In Macphail’s business career, he was chief executive, then chairman, of the Edrington Group, a private company that is owned by the Robertson Trust.
The scholarship has a proud record of assisting the development of Scottish talent by exposing them to different environments.
Previous winners include John Barclay, the Glasgow Warriors and Scotland flanker in 2005 and Edinburgh Rugby flanker Roddy Grant, the 2008 recipient.
Two of last year’s recipients, lock Grant Gilchrist and stand-off Harry Leonard have played regularly for Edinburgh Rugby in the RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup this year and will be fighting for a spot in the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulouse this Saturday (7 April), while Leonard and fellow scholar George Turner were involved in this season’s Scotland under-20s RBS 6 Nations campaign.
Gilchrist said: “I improved a lot in New Zealand, both technically and as an individual, having learned from the reality check as a person that comes with spending some extended time away from home.
“On my return my initial targets were simply to impress the coaches with a few appearances off the bench and work my way into the team but once I started getting more exposure my expectations and ambitions changed as I pushed to start every week.
“The challenge for me now is to own that place in the second-row. It’s a really exciting time at Edinburgh Rugby and all I want to do is keep playing and be involved in a winning side every week.”
Graham Lowe, Scottish Rugby’s director of performance rugby, said: “Jonny and Gregor are quality young talents who have applied themselves well in rugby and in the development opportunities they have been given so far.
“They are two bright players who will, hopefully, have a long future in the game and who will make the most of the scholarship and their time in New Zealand. The level of support they will receive from the Canterbury RFU is superb.
“This is also a opportunity for Ben to add to his coaching experience and improve his talent.
“My thanks go to The Robertson Scholarship Trust for their support again this year in helping us boost the development of our best young rugby players in Scotland.”