GARY GRAHAM’S call-up to the England training squad ahead of the 2018 Six Nations was a bit of a shock. The Stirling-born flanker had played only six matches [five starts] for Newcastle Falcons in top flight professional rugby at that stage, after joining the club from second tier Jersey Reds the previous summer.
As a former Scotland Under-20s cap, and son of ex-national prop and coach George Graham, his decision to chase international recognition South of the Border was always going to cause a stir – and especially so after an incendiary interview with a national newspaper was published in which he stated: “I’d f***ing love to play against Scotland next week, make 1,000 tackles and shove it in their face.”
There is an interesting backdrop to this. Two months before Graham’s England call-up, a delegation of senior SRU figures – including Chief Executive Mark Dodson and national team head coach Gregor Townsend – conducted a publicity tour of London to proudly launch their new SQ [Scottish Qualified] programme, designed to seek out foreign-born but Scottish-qualified talent from around the globe to bolster the smallest player pool of any Tier One rugby nation.
In truth, SQ amounts to little more than a refreshed and repackaged version of the traditional Exiles network, while the tactic of sending an advanced party south to announce these cross-Border raids was regarded by some as unnecessarily provocative.
Was Graham’s selection a piece of gamesmanship from Eddie Jones in response to the SRU’s very deliberate decision to park the tanks on England’s lawn? Or did the coach really see him as a player with the potential to push his way into the side ahead of Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw, Sam Simmonds, Sam Underhill, Nathan Hughes, James Haskell, Don Armand, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola, Brad Shields, Mark Wilson and Zach Mercer, who have all been capped in the English back-row since Graham’s call-up?
We will never really get to the bottom of that question because Graham dropped out of the England squad with a neck injury before the Six Nations kicked off. And now, after missing out on selection for England’s 34-player touring party to South Africa during the summer, and the 36-man squad for this Autumn’s Test series, he has realigned his national allegiance once more with the country of his birth.
“I’m Scottish through-and-through but England asked me first as I’m eligible through residency. It would have been a silly opportunity to pass up, as I hadn’t been selected for a Scotland squad since U20s,” he said, in a statement issued by the SRU yesterday morning.
“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,” he added.
This is a very different tone to that interview in the Daily Mail back in February in which he bemoaned the way he had been virtually ignored by Murrayfield after graduating from the Scotland Under-20s set-up in 2012, leading to his decision to leave Gala after three frustrating years playing in the Scottish Premiership and throw his lot in with Jersey ahead of the 2015-16 season.
“I joined Jersey for £18,000 a year and I was on my arse because you pay £500 a month for a room, and then you need to pay for a car and the only shop for your veg is a Waitrose,” he said. “My career had plateaued while these guys I’d played with for Scotland Under-20s — Finn Russell,Ali Price, Stuart Hogg — had taken off and played for Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Lions.
“My face didn’t fit… I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about it.”
However, Graham did admit that the door had not been completely closed to him, having received a call from Townsend at around about the same time as he was being courted by England.
“I told him I’d be stupid not to want to play for England. England want to be No1 in the world and I’m not sure Scotland will ever be anywhere near. I’ve grown up here so, yeah, I feel more English than Scottish,” he told the Mail.
Pretty strong stuff – but we shouldn’t be too harsh on the player. He is clearly a passionate and impetuous character, who has shot from the hip and perhaps now regrets some of the things he has said. It feels like Townsend was paving the way for Graham’s call-up a few weeks ago when he suggested these comments were off the record – although he didn’t deny they had been made.
History cannot be airbrushed here. While it is absolutely right that Graham should have an international future with Scotland – if he is good enough – it is only fair to the players who dependably stuck their bodies on the line (either for the jersey or in pursuit of the jersey) over the past year that it should not be handed to him on a plate at the first opportunity. Playing for Scotland needs to be a big deal, and he needs to prove that he is really committed to the cause.
We can just about gloss over the Kilted-Kiwis and Jock-Boks with ancestral links to Scotland telling us that they always had a saltire flag hanging above their bed as a kid, and project players telling us they have fallen in love with the country whilst being here for exactly the amount of time it takes to qualify on residency before disappearing off on a big money deal to England and France. But this is different.
Whilst Graham’s credentials are far stronger than that, he made a big decision less than a year ago and that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
Scotland have lost Blade Thomson, Dave Denton and Magnus Bradbury from their initial training squad for this Autumn Test series, but they are not quite scraping the bottom of the back-row barrel yet.
Hamish Watson was rested last week so will be raring to go this weekend, Jamie Ritchie seemed to have his breakthrough match as an international player against Fiji , Matt Fagerson lasted less than half an hour before retiring with a dead leg but is expected to be fit again in time for South Africa, Josh Strauss put in a huge shift off the bench and Ryan Wilson is the beating heart of the pack.
And then there is that ultimate professional, Rob Harley, who was named in Townsend’s initial training squad but has yet to feature on match-day. Not to mention Adam Ashe, who was added to the squad last week. What sort of message would selecting Graham in front of these guys send out?
There is no need to rush this one. Unless, of course, Scotland are worried that Graham might jump ship again.