Friday 6 December 2019

Richie Gray confident Warriors can handle Richie Thorn in Leinster side

Hugh Farrelly

BRAD THORN and Richie Gray would make a hell of a second-row partnership, completely different players perfectly suited to cover all the bases of engine-room duties.

Thorn, the grizzled, vastly experienced hitman, who makes it his business to extract the maximum impact from his powerful frame, be it in the scrum, blowing into rucks or unleashing some of the heaviest tackles yet witnessed in European club rugby. Then there is the fresh-faced, blond-thatched Gray -- lithe, languid and lethal in the line-out with the pace to finish of tries from far out.

It makes for an intriguing match-up and contrast of styles in Saturday's Pro12 semi-final at the RDS. Although they will not be directly opposite each other at line-out time, they are bound to come into contact when Gray inevitably shows for ball-carrying -- and if any man can rock Scotland's revered 6' 9" strider back on his heels it is Leinster's World Cup winner from New Zealand.

Thorn is a remarkable rugby specimen who, a quarter of the way into his 38th year, is poised to become the oldest player to appear in a Heineken Cup final when Leinster face Ulster on Saturday week at Twickenham.

He has been an excellent signing by Joe Schmidt, bringing industry, heft and gravitas to the Leinster second-row next to captain Leo Cullen, who has looked energised by his presence. Thorn's contribution to the province's shut-out of Clermont in the Heineken Cup semi-final last weekend was worth his signing-on fee in itself.

The IRFU's new stipulations on foreigners not being allowed to sign contract extensions have led to protestations that quality overseas players will not be attracted to Ireland and those that are will be unable to invest properly in the 'culture' of their chosen province.

Thorn represents the perfect counter-argument. Professional rugby is a business and, just as Rocky Elsom did before him, Thorn's brief was to come in, add significantly to the cause, get well paid for his time and be on his way -- job done.

In the short time the 37-year-old has been with Leinster, he has bought into what the province is about and is grateful for the opportunity to perform on the big stage again, when the World Cup final could have been his swansong. But, first and foremost, this was a business transaction, Leinster paid for quality and expected a return and Thorn has held up his side of the bargain splendidly.

Gray is just as motivated by the lure of silverware, particularly as he is heading off to Sale at the end of the season and he does not want Saturday to be his final outing for Glasgow. He received a massive ovation in his final home match last weekend and was delighted the Firhill faithful were rewarded with a win over Connacht, a match where Gray tormented the visitors' line-out.

"It was emotional," said the 22-year-old. "Obviously it was my last home game, so it was heart-warming to get that sort of reception and it was great to finish the regular season with a win.

"It has set us up nicely to go ahead on a high for the challenge of facing Leinster at the RDS on Saturday and, hopefully, we can go on to the final. I want to play as many games as I can in a Glasgow jersey."

Optimism is backboned by the fact that Glasgow are one of only two teams to defeat Leinster this season, when two understrength sides met in the league at the RDS last September (the Ospreys provided Leinster with their only two other defeats). And, although they were well beaten at the same venue in the Heineken Cup, the Warriors gave Schmidt's side a good rattle in the return match before drawing 10-10 in the Pro12 at Firhill a few weeks later.

Gray was on World Cup duty for that September victory, but believes it can bolster confidence ahead of a match where they go in as rank outsiders.

"We'll certainly be talking to the guys who won there and drawing what we can from that experience because that was a fantastic win. I think what we take from the first game with them in the Heineken Cup is that we sat off them in the first 20 minutes and gave them too much respect and Leinster, being the team they are, put us to the sword.

"We believe we can do it on Saturday," he added. "There was a bit of jealousy at seeing Edinburgh in a Heineken Cup semi-final, but I'm close to a lot of their players, so it was great to see them performing so well, but it's our turn now."

Such brio is admirable and in keeping with the confidence Gray brings to his rugby.

However, Schmidt is set to name a side dripping with international quality and one that will be driven by the prospect of the double -- not least in the second-row where, with a maximum of three games left in his Leinster career, Thorn is not likely to be holding back.

It should be worth watching.

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