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Exeter Chiefs battling to keep international star as French club comes knocking

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Wednesday Nov 29, 2023

Exeter Chiefs find themselves in a tug-of-war to retain the services of Scottish international lock Jonny Gray, with reports suggesting that Top 14 outfit Bordeaux Begles is keen on securing his talents.

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At just 29 years old, Gray has already left an indelible mark on the rugby scene, having captained Glasgow Warriors at the tender age of 21. Joining Exeter midway through the pandemic-affected 2019/20 season, the towering 6ft 7in, nearly 20-stone lock played a pivotal role in securing both the Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup titles for the Chiefs during that campaign.

French publication Midi Olympique has now revealed Bordeaux’s interest in Gray, considering him a potential replacement for Jandré Marais and Kane Douglas, whose contracts are set to expire at the end of the season. Gray’s older brother Richie, who enjoyed a successful stint with Castres and Toulouse from 2013 to 2020, adds to the family’s French rugby connections.

Exeter Chiefs faced a notable exodus to the Top 14 last season, with stars like Jack Nowell, Joe Simmonds, Sam Simmonds, and Harry Williams making moves to French clubs. Gray, with 77 international caps, is currently recovering from a dislocated kneecap injury sustained in Exeter’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle in May. His imminent return to the pitch is anticipated as he aims to make a significant impact for the Devon side.

In Gray’s absence, players like Rusi Tuima and Lewis Pearson have stepped up in the second row, complementing captain Dafydd Jenkins, Jack Dunne, and the towering Alfie Bell. Tuima, in particular, has thrived since transitioning from number eight to the engine room, showcasing his strengths in ball carrying, defensive physicality, and improved aerial skills.

Should the Scottish veteran leave the club, Director of Rugby Rob Baxter said he has full confidence in Tuima.

“It has been a good move for Rusi. The big thing it does it allows his strengths to look like real strengths. It allows his ball carrying and his physicality in defence, and the quality of his handling – they look like highlights for a second row whereas maybe when he players in the backrow there aren’t enough of them to look like highlights because people expect other things to happen – big breaks or big turnovers. But when he plays a lock, our setpiece is going well and his ariel skills are improving all the time, you then see this big guy coming up with these carries and moments and it starts to look like a good package as a lock.” Baxter said.

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