Murray extends his shelf life after all the baskets and trolleys

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The Independent Online

It is 3pm at Murrayfield and Scott Murray - muddied, not a little bloodied and still refuelling his lungs from the afternoon training session - makes his way from the back pitches into the inner confines of Scotland's national stadium. Sitting on a bench in the treatment room, he picks at the black sticky tape wrapped around his thighs but is unable to rack his brains back through some 24 years.

"I can't even remember where I was," the statuesque Murray says when asked if he can recall 5 March 1983, the day Scotland last beat England at Twickenham. "My dad was in the army, so I imagine I would have been in Germany - in Berlin, probably. I wouldn't have known anything about the game. I was into basketball at the time." On cue, the black tape goes sailing into a rubbish bin without hitting the rim. Two points to Scotland's most-capped forward.

Murray might still be shooting regulation hoops today, rather than preparing to open another Six Nations' Championship campaign with Scotland at Twickenham next Saturday, had it not been for a fateful encounter while he was stacking shelves in a supermarket. "I think it was the soup aisle," he ponders, "but I do remember I was stacking the top shelves. They always made me do the top shelves."

Willie Paterson walked into Sainsbury's in Prestonpans, took one look at Murray, and thought of a better use for the towering 16-year-old than the depositing of Baxters cock-a-leekie. "I'd never met Willie before," Murray says. "He just came up to me and said, 'Ah, you're a big fellow. Do you fancy some rugby?' "

And thus Scottish rugby discovered the player who could well break their all-time national cap record during the course of the Six Nations' Championship.

After trying "some rugby" under Paterson's tutelage at the Preston Lodge club, Murray hung up his basketball boots just short of earning a Scottish schools' cap (he was picked in the squad for a tournament in Ireland but did not play) and threw in his sporting lot as a second row.

Two weeks past his 31st birthday, the former Sainsbury's worker has yet to reach his sell-by date. A debutant against Australia at Murrayfield back in November 1997, Murray has stacked up 79 caps - just three short of Gregor Townsend's record Scottish haul.

Not that the 6ft 6in Edinburgh lock is counting on the record being his by the time Scotland finish their Six Nations campaign in Paris on 17 March. "I am just looking to get into the team for the next match," Murray says. "I cannot afford to think any other way, especially with the guys who are coming through. There are a lot of guys fighting for positions in the second row now."

There are indeed. Even with Nathan Hines on the injured list, Scott MacLeod, Jim Hamilton and Alastair Kellock are all pressing hard for starting berths at Twickenham.

Still, Murray was Scotland's form lock in the autumn and Frank Hadden needs all the experience he can muster up front. The Scotland coach is going to be short enough as it is in that department, with Jason White out for the season and Allister Hogg, the other back-row cornerstone of the Murray-field wins against France and England last year, only just on the comeback trail.

It promises to be as intriguing an opener for the Scots as it will be for the English at the launch of the Brian Ashton era. The big question for Scotland is whether they can build on the progress they made under Hadden last season. Having been stricken by so many injury blows (those suffered by Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair undermining another key area of strength, at scrum-half), and having finished the autumn with a 44-15 walloping at the hands of the Wallabies, seeds of doubt have been planted.

Then, of course, there is the matter of Scotland historically getting their Twickers in a twist when they venture on to English soil. Their last victory at England's HQ dates back to that day in March 1983, when Roy Laidlaw and Tom Smith scored the tries in what has become a time-warp of a 22-12 success.

Murray has played in four Twickenham defeats, one of them a tantalisingly close call. Back in 1999, with three converted tries apiece, one Jonny Wilkinson penalty and three poor Kenny Logan misses added up to the difference in a 24-21 let-off for England. With Chris Paterson currently in such Wilkinsonesque form with the boot, it might be different this time - if Scotland get the chances, that is.

"It's always tough to beat people away from home in the Six Nations, especially England at Twickenham," Murray says. "It could be a good thing to be playing them now; it could be a bad thing. It depends how they hit the floor running under their new coach.

"They'll probably have as little pressure on them as they've had in a long time," he adds. "There won't be the same kind of massive expectation on them that there has been since they won the World Cup.

"I've heard people say it's a good chance for us, but I've heard that kind of thing before in my career. We're going to Twicken-ham, one of the hardest places in the world to play rugby. We know we're going to have to work really hard for what we get."