Newcastle native David Gray is helping rugby reach new frontiers, the former Northern full-back now playing in Thailand.
The 24-year-old is turning out for the Bangkok Bangers club, for whom he recently lined up in a 10-a-side tournament against South African legend Bob Skinstad.
Based in Thailand to combine work with his love of travel, Gray explained: “I studied ecology and conservation at university in Bournemouth, and got a job teaching zoo-logy at Kirkley Hall near Ponteland. That is an animal-based college, and when I got my teaching qualification after two years my boss just said I should go out and see the world.
“My office is in Bangkok, but I just go all over Thailand wherever the school I work with wants to go. We have been to the north, south, east and west of the country, to some of the islands, the highest point and lots of places in between.”
Thailand’s national rugby team are currently ranked 59th in the world, between Chinese Taipei and Colombia, Gray stating: “I wasn’t aware of rugby in Thailand at all until I got there, but my dad always said to me that whenever you go to a new place you should find the local rugby club. It is the ideal way to meet people and make new friends.
“When I looked online prior to moving there were two clubs, the Bangkok Bangers, who I play with now, and the Southerners. On the very first trip I had with the school their headteacher was a Southerners player and tried to convince me to come down, but I had already been talking to the captain of the Bangers. In my very first game we played them and I met him on the pitch, which was awkward, but good fun.
“The rugby in Thailand is actually to a much higher standard than I thought it was going to be, bearing in mind rugby is not very well-known there and they have their own sports like futsal, which is really popular. There are a lot of ex-pat teams we play, and plenty of tournaments. The standard is decent, and we play games against Thai colleges who are looking for opposition.”
Building cultural and sporting bridges, he said: “There are a few Thai nationals in our team, but the majority at the moment are actually French. There are Kiwis, Aussies, Canadians, Italians, Brits and guys from all over the world, really. It is a good mix, and with ex-pats coming and going all the time the club finds itself taking new people in on a regular basis.
“The first training session I had with them included an initiation afterwards, and whenever someone from the club walked through the door I had to finish my beer. I got home pretty late and had a terrible hangover, so I couldn’t go to work the next day. The most awkward thing is that I actually live at the office, so people were knocking on the door and I was just having to explain all the time I was in no fit state to work!”
Enjoying a lifestyle far removed from Newcastle, he added: “There are obviously huge differences. The biggest one is food, which is so cheap in Thailand that most houses don’t even have kitchens. Everything, every day is rice – three times a day. Even breakfast and snacks, it has rice in it, and the other thing is the heat.
“As players in England we are used to doing warm-ups before a game, but it is basically the opposite in Thailand because the aim is to stretch your muscles but stay cool at the same time.
“In Bangkok most people can speak some English, but when we travel that is not the case. We have gone out and learnt some Thai under our own initiative, which has been helpful, and meant we can interact and get things done in other parts of the country.
“The thing that gets you the first time you arrive is the poverty gap, and you will regularly see really plush condominiums with Rolls-Royces, and literally next door a tin shack that someone is living in. You are basically really rich or really poor.”
Having recently competed in the Bangkok International Tens before returning home last week to be best-man at a friend’s wedding and sneak in a quick game for Northern against a touring side, Gray said: “The Tens was great fun.
“There are a lot of teams travel over like the national squads from Japan and Russia. We ended up playing Singapore, Moscow and a team called the Jam Boys, from SouthAfrica.
“Players from China and Laos were there, which was good, and you can really see that rugby is growing in Asia. In the district where I live there is another Thai team now playing, and a charity which gets kids out of poverty and drugs and encourages them to play the game.”
Already lining up his next challenge, Gray said: “The plan next is to finish my time in Thailand, then in August I have been offered a job in Iceland. I am basically going to repeat the process and see if there are any rugby clubs in Iceland I can join, because it is just a great way to get to know a country and meet new people.
“The nature of my job and my degree means there are not a huge amount of jobs in the UK for me, so for the time being I can just see the world and take in new experiences. I don’t have a wife or a mortgage, but I love rugby and travelling.”