Scots ‘Crusader’ Murray believes he is fighting the good fight, says Kevin Ferrie
PERCHED on the edge of a table whose manufacturer should be proud of the workmanship, Euan Murray had been looking towards the floor, but nodded in considered fashion before turning lugubriously, a smile spreading across his face. “It was good fun,” he purred wickedly.
The tighthead prop had been among the scorers as the Irish line was crossed five times when this World Cup season kicked off a fortnight ago, but everything about the nature of that brief response to my enquiry about how he had enjoyed the occasion indicated that it was not the try count which pleased him most.
“We’ve been pushed around by the bigger teams too often; it’s time we asserted ourselves,” said the most fearsome physical specimen in an increasingly monstrous Scottish pack when ever so carefully prodded.
“It was always the case 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago, that we were a bit lightweight, but hopefully we’re seeing that change.”
The Scottish pack that faced Ireland was heavier than the English one that had more than a stone per man advantage over France’s last weekend and, while size is by no means everything, the gym work done over the summer has been impressive. A side benefit, as Murray suggested, is the relish with which the big beasts in particular are seeking to put their new conditioning to effect now they have been released from their cages.
“We’ve all worked really hard, but we feel like we’ve been stuck indoors all summer, locked in the gym,” he noted.
It was a little less than a year ago that Murray told a slack-jawed press corps how his life had changed since he rediscovered God. Doubtless it says more about modern society, or perhaps just the cynicism of the media, that to this day some muse on the possibility that we may have been victims of an elaborate prank.
Clearly that was not so, but talking to him the other day, it would have been no surprise to be told he had gone over to the other side. Throw in a booming cackle and a clap of thunder and he might have been auditioning for a part in a Hammer movie. That knowing grin, the glint in the eye . . . Murray could hardly have conveyed more in the way of malevolent intent.
Yet he had made it clear even as he claimed that the first extended injury-free run of his career had been down to returning to the Baptist church and changing his ways, that he saw inflicting pain on opponents as in no way at odds with his faith.
It might be going too far to compare it with the reforming zeal of the Crusaders or others who have sought to change the world in the name of religion, but Murray believes that, when he takes the field for Scotland, he is fighting the good fight.
Many in modern secular society will be inclined to the view that corresponding improvements in lifestyle may have been the key to turning his career around. Either way, the important thing for any athlete is having confidence that the body can do what is asked of it, and that Murray increasingly seems to be able to do that is a far cry from the same stage of last season.
“A year ago I was saying this was rugby’s last chance from my perspective after so many setbacks,” he said. “It does have a detrimental effect on your appetite for the sport when that is happening, but now I’m just looking forward to seeing what Scotland can do.”
Since he turned 27 only a few days before the Ireland match, it would have been a sporting tragedy had Murray failed to add to the single cap he had won in Romania in 2005, to that point.
Whether down to gifts bestowed by his God, or merely the luck of inheriting the right combination of genes, Euan Murray is an exceptional human being.
As well as that vast frame – he is close to 19 stone packed into 6ft 1in – which allows him to impose himself on opponents and so utilise his substantial skills, he is a qualified veterinary surgeon.
To put that in context, the grades required just to get on to that course are higher than those for medicine. Furthermore, several talented Scottish players who have tried to juggle medical courses with rugby have found it simply to be too much.
There is no question that Murray’s rugby development was hindered while he completed his degree, but he managed to keep it going and may now be about to get the rewards.
Certainly there are experts in the field, among them Norman Mair, the doyen of Scottish rugby writers who represented his country in the front-row in the 1950s, who believe the platform for success against the Irish was Murray’s commanding physical presence.
There is no doubt his development has been hindered by being unable to spend as much time on the finer points of scrummaging as he would like, as well as his battles to maintain fitness.
Consequently, like many a big man, there has been an over-reliance on physique to get the job done. That has been the downfall of many a Scottish international blessed with comparable physical advantages – Matt Proudfoot, Alan Watt and, going back further, David Gray and Peter Stagg spring to mind – whose attitude or technical limitations prevented them from being the forces they might have been.
Within Murray is the natural aggression of a player who was red carded for foul play when facing England at age grade level while there are signs that under George Graham – a tiny tighthead prop in his day who is now Scotland’s forwards coach – he is learning the darker arts.
His progress, like that of the entire side, will be tested fully this afternoon. Os du Randt may be another who has been criticised for being all power and no finesse, but when the Visa Rugby Legends panel met recently to pick their all time greatest World Cup XV the Springbok No.1 was in there.
Murray fully understands what confronts him and his colleagues today. “We’ve only played one game and we’re not even match fit yet, whereas this is the end of their season,” he pointed out.
“You can do as much fitness work as you want and as much training as possible, but nothing replaces playing.”
If those comments seem designed to dampen expectations the smile and the glint in the eye return when that is suggested. “We’ll let our playing do the talking,” said Murray.