Scots ‘Cru­sader’ Murray be­lieves he is fight­ing the good fight, says Kevin Fer­rie

The Herald - Herald Sport - - Rugby Union - kevin.fer­[email protected]­herald.co.uk

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.

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