The Man From Cambuslang
In 2002, a seven-year-old from Rutherglen played his first ever rugby match at Cambuslang Rugby Club. Despite not fully understanding the rules, the lad received the ball, sprinted up the pitch and dotted down on the line.
Overjoyed at scoring his first try, he joined his teammates who were triumphantly celebrating, however, it came to an abrupt halt when he was told that he actually 'scored' on the half-way line rather than the try line.
Since then, Jonny Gray has gone on to win 57 caps for Scotland, make 110 appearances for Glasgow Warriors and help his club lift the PRO12 trophy, in 2015.
The imposing lock is now renowned for his ruthless defensive abilities and produced a startling club performance last season against Leinster when he recorded 43 tackles during the match without missing a single one.
It’s fair to say times have changed for Gray since his first ever rugby match. When reflecting on his first minis game, Gray laughed: “I didn’t know the rules. I just laughed it off but that’s the good thing about rugby from when I first started to now, it’s always been a good laugh.
“The first time I ever tried rugby was with my best friend Roy Johnson. His dad, Chick, took me down to Cambuslang when I was seven years old.
“We didn’t have a rugby ball so we just went outside with a football and we started trying to kick the football through the posts.
“Eventually, his dad managed to get a rugby ball from the clubhouse and threw it out to us and we started kicking and passing it about.
“I joined their next game which was my first ever game and I didn’t really know what was going on but I’ve been hooked ever since.”
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind journey for the 26-year-old, who has enjoyed an impressive rise through the ranks. Gray began his rugby journey at Cambuslang in their mini section and also once played at half-time in Hughenden as a kid during a Glasgow Warriors game.
He later joined Hamilton and was selected to feature in the Scotland U20 squad. He started his first game for the national U20 side when he was 17 and was selected as Scotland U20 captain for the 2013 RBS 6 Nations, and played 14 times at that level.
Gray was also named as one of the recipients of the 2012 John Macphail Scholarship and spent three months developing his rugby in New Zealand.
His standout performances for the club and age-grade side were soon rewarded when he joined Glasgow Warriors in 2012 and he has continued his rugby journey with the club since then.
Despite his meteoric rise through the ranks, it is clear that home is where the heart is for Gray. The forward is often seen in camp with his green and red Cambuslang club tie attached to his Scotland and Glasgow Warriors bags.
“I was there until I was 16 years old and I’m still very thankful to all the coaches, volunteers and people who I’m friends with at the club,” he said.
“That’s the good thing about the club – when you go back there you see a lot of the guys that have helped you along the way. A lot of my mates have gone on to do different things but I’ve still stayed close to them.
“I wouldn’t be here [in the national team] if it wasn’t for those guys helping me out.
“I had some of the best years of my life playing there.”
Jonny became Scotland’s 1050th cap when he was introduced as a replacement for his brother Richie in the second-half of Scotland’s Autumn Test against South Africa in November 2013.
The brothers were both on the scoresheet during the 2014 Autumn Test victory against Argentina, making them the first brothers to score in a Test match since Gavin and Scott Hastings, who were on the try-sheet together three times during their career.
At every step of his career, Gray has always acknowledged and paid tribute to the people that got him there. From his family and friends, to the coaches, players and volunteers at his clubs, and also the supporters at Glasgow Warriors and Scotland.
“My family – especially my brother Richie – have been there for me throughout my whole career,” he said. “Rich is always there for me and will always pick up the phone.
“To see first-hand how hard Rich worked to get where he is meant there was no excuse for me. I remember watching Rich in Glasgow and I remember how proud I was of him when he made his debut.
“I was lucky enough to be there when he made his Scotland debut against France. It meant so much to the family and we all saw how much hard-work and effort he put in to get there.
“I know Rich sometimes seems a quiet and laidback guy but I know how hard he works behind the scenes.
“I remember when he was breaking through people would say to me ‘you’ll be next’ and I just kind of laughed it off but I never thought it would come true.
“I’m lucky for the opportunities that I’ve had and I’ve been lucky throughout my career to have people who have helped me – not just at Cambuslang but also at Hamilton, Currie and Glasgow Warriors.”
Coming from a traditionally football-dominated city, Gray has witnessed first-hand the increasing presence and support for rugby in Glasgow.
Scotland Head Coach, Gregor Townsend, took the squad to Clydebank last year as part of an open training session and the opportunity to see some of Scotland’s top players train was enjoyed by more than 1,700 spectators.
It was clear that it was a special day for Gray, as he took the time to meet and speak to the supporters after the session and even endured a tough grilling during a Q&A session with two young West of Scotland players.
There was also a great sense of excitement across the city in May when Glasgow Warriors played in front of a fervent home crowd at Celtic Park during the Guinness PRO14 final – in which Gray featured.
“I remember going to watch a game with Richie at Hughenden, and then watching Rich play at Firhill and since then the crowds have grown so much,” he said.
“When I first started playing at Scotstoun there was a real buzz around the place and every year it has just got bigger and bigger.
“When you see and meet the fans, they are crazy about rugby but they are good people. They follow us everywhere and we get to see them after the game which is great.
“It is great to see Glasgow Warriors flags around the city and a lot of people were talking about the Guinness PRO14 final at Celtic Park.
“Unfortunately, the result didn’t go our way but to see over 47,000 people at Celtic Park was crazy. I think that shows you just how far rugby has come along in Glasgow.
“You are seeing rugby being introduced a bit more in schools in the south side of Glasgow. Rugby is spoken about and played in more parts of Glasgow which is great.
“There is just a real buzz around the city and people are getting right behind rugby which is great to see.”
After seven years with Glasgow Warriors, it was announced that Gray will be departing his hometown club to join English Premiership side Exeter Chiefs next season.
Speaking at the time of the announcement, Gray said: “Leaving Glasgow will be tough. I love Glasgow and I’m so grateful to the club and so many people associated with the club for all they have done during my time here.
“Without doubt this was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I see the move not only as a chance to experience something new, but at the same time it’s a chance for me to develop myself, not only as a player, but as a person."
This interview was from the 2019 Scotland v France Summer Test programme.