Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship: Murray keeps moving onwards

A former basketball player will be coming down to earth tomorrow when Wales visit Murrayfield. By David Llewellyn
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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be fair to say that the worst three hours of Scott Murray's rugby career were not his first two appearances for his country, as traumatic as were the thrashings handed out by first Australia, then South Africa, in late autumn and early winter 1997.

The Murrayfield nightmares were seven long months away when the young Bedford lock suffered a harrowing 180 minutes in hospital, wondering if he would ever see out of his left eye again. He was punched during Bedford's match against Newcastle. "I couldn't see out of my left eye for about three hours. It was very frightening," he said.

To take his mind off the unthinkable he borrowed a mobile telephone and kept ringing the Goldington Road ground for updates on the state of affairs between the then Second Division rivals. It all ended happily. Bedford won and Murray recovered his vision.

Since then it has been onward and upward for the former Scotland Schools basketball international, who was 23 last month. Under the influence of Bedford's player-coach, Rudi Straeuli, he has matured into a superb second-row forward. His previous incarnation means he has a great degree of mobility around the pitch. If they were to ban lifting at the line- out Murray's natural athleticism would see him soaring from a standing jump to pluck the ball away from the opposition.

Yet it was almost by chance that Murray is where he is. He was selected for Scotland Under-18s on the same weekend that he was called up for a basketball international. "The basketball people wanted me to turn out for them on the Friday evening, play rugby on the Saturday then more basketball on the Sunday," he remembers. "The rugby authorities said there was no way I could do that. The reason I chose to play rugby that weekend was because it was harder to get in to the rugby team. There was more competition."

The basketball part of his life stems from his father's interest and participation in the game. Also, because his father was in the arm,y Murray was brought up for much of his formative years in Germany, hardly a hotbed of rugby.

Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he has made it to the top - although he does admit to being surprised to win his first cap for Scotland while Bedford were still in the Second Division.

But, on reflection, perhaps it was understandable, because, as Murray says: "When I joined Bedford from Edinburgh Academicals the year before, I realised straightaway that I was making a step up in standard, even though Bedford were in the Second Division.

"I found myself playing with a lot of better players and as a youngster you can take a lot from those around you. Also at Accies I was not a steady first-team player. It wasn't until I joined Bedford that I got a regular run of hard games."

The question has to be asked: why Bedford in the first place? The answer, given the coyness of so many sporting professionals these days, is astonishingly frank. "It was a lot to do with money," says Murray. "They offered me twice as much as everyone else. There wasn't much to think about."

However much he is being paid, and ultimately that is an irrelevance, Murray is paying back Bedford in spades. He has been a key figure in their rise to Allied Premiership One and he has survived some unpleasant international results to be on the brink of winning his eighth cap for Scotland.

Things have had to change for him, though, in order for him to succeed as he has done, not least his approach to the game. Murray confesses: "I was pretty lazy at Accies. I didn't go to the gym for example." He implies he did just enough and no more, perhaps the motivation was not there.

Now, though, there is motivation aplenty. With his move south came a change in attitude, which has further resulted in a change of shape. "I am a lot bigger than when I played for Accies," he explains. "I am a stone and a half heavier - all muscle except for my beer gut - than I was. And my attitude has changed. I have to train, and I do."

The dividends are there for all to see. But Murray is never going to turn into the type of player who lives and breathes the game. He wants to savour life outside the professional's weekday routine of improving fitness and kicking balls and then spending the rest of the time kicking his heels, driven senseless with boredom.

"There's a group of us who make a point of doing something else. Most Fridays for example we will go clay pigeon shooting, and last week we went deep-sea fishing. Then on a Monday we attend a basic computer course, one which can lead to further, more advanced courses. There is the homework which is generated from that and we also play golf."

Unusually for a Scot, especially one born in Musselburgh, Murray had not struck a golf ball with serious intent until he joined Bedford, but, as with the guitar, which he has taken up recently and with some success, he would appear to be a fast learner. "I am playing off a handicap of 16," he says.

But for all his facility to learn there is still a big gap in his rugby career. Although he played in the World Cup qualifiers last autumn when Scotland thrashed Spain and Portugal, no caps were awarded and Murray says: "I haven't won a match yet in which I have been capped." There is no doubt that he intends to end that unenviable record as soon as possible. Wales at Murrayfield tomorrow is his first opportunity. He is in the mood to take it.