Picture the scene. You’re 19 years old and representing your country at the Under-20’s World Cup in South Africa.
The side finish 9th overall but a few of the boys around you pick up professional and academy contracts but not you. Most of them go to private school whereas you grew up on a council estate. You head back to your club, putting in the hours at the gym and on the training field. Maybe if you get your head down and work hard it’ll be you next. Three years fly past and you’re stood still, working during the day to earn some money and putting shift after shift in at training at night.
Then finally an opportunity to play professional rugby comes. It’s not top flight by any stretch but it’s an opportunity to do what you love doing and you grab it. Two seasons later and a club from the English Premiership come calling and not just any club, the club your old man used to play for. The club that proudly and unashamedly represents the area where you grew up.
Flash forward another two years and you get two calls. You’ve been invited to train with the England squad but Scotland, the country you represented at that Under-20’s World Cup are also interested. You’ve had to fight your way to the top with nothing but grit, determination, strength of will and an unwavering belief that you are good enough. The country of your birth, that turned you down all those years ago has come crawling back now you’ve hit the big time. But the country that gave you your big break, the country where you spent most of your life growing up, the country that sits higher in the World Rankings and competes for honours almost every year also wants you.
What would you do?
Putting it in context, Gary Graham’s decision to join up with England was always going to be straightforward. The “anti-Scottish” quotes that have been dragged up come from an interview he did with his Dad with the Daily Mail. The tone of the interview is of a father and son taking turns to rib each other about their respective sporting allegiances and Graham Junior’s anger clearly lies with those in charge of the Scottish system that cast him aside rather than the country or even the national side itself. Subtlety is often hard to get over on the printed page.
As someone who grew up at the other end of the Scottish and English border from Graham, this writer knows how fluid sporting allegiances can be. There are those who fall down clearly on one side or the other, some whose allegiance changes depending on the sport being played and some who identify as neither, preferring to be classed as Cumbrian, Northumbrian or even just a Berwicker before anything else. Town and county regularly coming before country.
Gregor Townsend never closed the door on Graham and neither should Scotland fans.
The same bloody-mindedness, determination, grit and guts that saw him drag himself from Gala to the Falcons via Jersey without much help from anyone is a strength and the exact mindset Townsend is looking for in his players. Many accused Jones of playing games when Graham was initially called up to the England squad and the fact he missed out on subsequent squads might lend some substance to that theory. Graham should be applauded for having the courage to stick two fingers up to his suitors down south and his willingness to take the slings and arrows that will inevitably come his way regarding his allegiances and place the call to Townsend.
Such resilience is hard to come by these days and Gary Graham might just be the hard edge Scotland have been searching for.