- Gray boosted by three-month spell in Christchurch
- Falcons’ number eight now heads for Portugal camp
Photo: Getty Images
One of England's brightest back row talents has been working alongside Richie McCaw to develop his game during a three-month spell in New Zealand.
Athletic number eight Alex Gray has returned to Newcastle Falcons after three months with Canterbury and heads for a warm weather training camp in Portugal on November 30 with Mark Mapletoft's England Under 20 squad.
Gray made his debut in England's Under 18 side as a 16-year-old before leading them through two unbeaten campaigns that culminated in a thumping 45-13 victory over South Africa in Kimberley in August.
Instead of returning to the North East and straight into full-time rugby with the Falcons, the Newcastle-born teenager opted for a spell in Christchurch, playing for Canterbury's unbeaten Under 20 side - prompting comparisons with the way current England boss Martin Johnson did so with King Country before launching his own international career.
Gray also worked alongside New Zealand captain McCaw in the gym and on his breakdown skills with McCaw's mentor Angus Gardiner, a flanker who played for Bath and Beziers after winning back-to-back Super 12 titles with the Crusaders.
Equally important for Gray was the chance to expand his horizons after leaving Barnard Castle School and living away from home for the first time, without sacrificing the chance to learn more about the game.
"Leaving school I knew I wanted to see a bit of the world but I couldn't just disappear off the radar and do nothing," said Gray.
"I talked to (England U18 coach) John Fletcher and Newcastle to let them know what I wanted to do and they've helped me to go. I wanted to grow as a person and know what it's like to be out on your own.
"Canterbury's probably the best rugby area there is. I've lived at home and never had to do too much like cooking for myself and looking after myself and I thought it would be a good challenge. I've had the time of my life, made some friends for life and seen some things I'd never see elsewhere.
"In Christchurch I was an hour from the mountains and half-an-hour from the coast and the beach. It's a very different place and a different way of life to back home. Much less complicated.
"The big thing is that everyone lives and breathes their rugby and it was interesting to see just how seriously it's taken. It's pretty cut-throat. If the All Blacks lose a game it's a disaster and everyone's getting into them. Everyone's an expert and wants to talk to you about it.
"I was welcomed wherever I went - more than I ever thought I would be to be honest. I've shared a flat with a few of the Canterbury boys and everyone's been happy to help out."
A rare prospect
Photo: Getty Images
Newcastle boss Steve Bates is already on record as describing Gray as potentially the best forward ever produced by the club's academy and ready to challenge for a first team place in the remainder of this season.
The teenager returned to England last month having topped up his fitness in Christchurch as well as adding to his technical skills on the pitch.
"There's been a big focus on my conditioning as a young forward while I've been away and working hard on lots of detail - handling, scrum, lineout, breakdown, everything," he said.
"Everything's been catered for. For example, at the breakdown I've been with Angus Gardiner, who works with Richie McCaw.
"It's such a crucial part of the game and they definitely spend a lot of time working at it. Every training session includes a lot of breakdown and contact work."
The next step on the international ladder beckons, too. After the Portugal camp, Gray should be part of the Under 19 England Academies side taking on Australian Schools at Cinderford on December 19.
"Without doubt he's a very talented player who's achieved a great deal in his junior career so far," said Mapletoft, whose Under 20 set-up has brought through likes of forwards of the calibre of Courtney Lawes, Alex Corbisiero, Andy Saull, Carl Fearns and Calum Clark in the past two seasons.
"It's great for him to have been able to go from the South Africa trip to New Zealand to experience life and rugby in the southern hemisphere and that move was supported both at national level and by his club. All the feedback we've had from those working with him in New Zealand has been very positive.
"As a first year Under 20 he now has to force his way into the squad for the Six Nations, establish himself at this level and then see where we go from there."
By that he means the IRB Junior World Championships in Argentina next summer, where England will want to take possession of some silverware after defeat at the hands of New Zealand in the last two finals.
"If I get there I could end up playing against some of the boys I've been on the same side with for Canterbury," said Gray. "That's a big goal."