Euan Murray during his Saints days

MUTUAL CONSENT, it’s one of the great sporting clichés. Up there with ‘Over the moon’ and ‘game of two halves’. There was plenty of mutual consent in evidence when it was announced in December that Euan Murray would be leaving Northampton Saints. On this particular occasion, however, there was a clue in the press statement that perhaps the mutuality wasn’t that warm; Murray was packing his kit bag with ‘immediate effect’ – the sporting equivalent of being given ten minutes to clear your desk as the office security guards wait to escort you to the front entrance.

Suddenly Murray, who a fortnight before had won his 35th cap for Scotland, was without a job. Not that he was on the dole for long; the first club to express an interest in signing one of the world’s most respected scrummagers was the Scarlets. Their wing Sean Lamont, who plays alongside Murray for Scotland, was soon on the phone to his team-mate in an attempt to persuade him to head to Wales.

But in the end Murray agreed a two-and-a-half year deal with Newcastle. “We’re delighted to sign a proven high-quality tighthead prop,” said head coach Alan Tait, who confirmed that a major factor in offering Murray a contract was the fact that few of the Falcons’ games fall on a Sunday.

So in the end everyone was happy? Well, one suspects that Northampton and Murray might not be exchanging Christmas cards on a regular basis. Judging from the brusque words of Saints coach Jim Mallinder, Murray’s refusal to play rugby on Sundays because of his religious beliefs had become an issue at Franklin’s Gardens. “When we originally signed his contract it was before ESPN were involved and the number of Sunday games wasn’t that great,” explained Mallinder. “But the number of Sundays are increasing in modern rugby. That’s life and that’s a decision Euan has made.”

Not much sympathy on show for Murray’s Christian beliefs, but should there be in the cut-throat world of professional sport? Is Northampton’s intransigence to blame, or is Murray’s? Asked to reflect on his departure from the Saints, Murray clearly finds the subject uncomfortable. Was it because of his refusal to play rugby on Sundays? A lengthy silence, a sheepish smile, then he says politely: “I’d rather not say too much on the subject. All I’ll say is that personally I find it frustrating to have games on a Sunday.”

Murray isn’t the first rugby player to shun Sunday games, but in the professional age the ‘win at all costs’ ethos prevails. Defeats cost jobs – certainly as far as coaches are concerned – and it’s understandable that they want to field their best XV regardless of a player’s religious beliefs. Murray acknowledges this but he’s as immovable in his views as he is in his scrums. “It was a very difficult decision to make,” he says. “It was only after I’d read a lot of the Bible that I was convinced I shouldn’t play on Sundays.”

He has no regrets and won’t change his mind. Take it or leave it. The Saints left it, the Falcons took it, and Murray is settling in well in his new surrounds. “They’re a good bunch, a mix of experienced, older heads and talented youngsters. We work hard for each other and there’s a good morale in the squad.”

A similar description could be applied to Scotland. Murray’s been an integral part of their resurgence as an international force in the past 18 months, and though an ankle injury forced him to miss the summer wins in Argentina, he anchored the scrum in the impressive victories against Ireland and South Africa. “That win (against the Springboks) was the most enjoyable moment of my rugby career,” says Murray. “We’d just lost to them a couple of years earlier, despite dominating the scrum, so to beat them this time was satisfying.”

There’s a quiet confidence in the Scotland squad on the back of their recent good run – a 49-3 thrashing by New Zealand their only defeat in seven Tests – and Murray says: “We’re going in the right direction without getting over-excited. As the New Zealand match showed we can’t be complacent for one moment.”

Murray will miss Scotland’s Six Nations clash with England as it falls on a Sunday but he’ll be present when the Scots take on Martin Johnson’s side at the World Cup and can’t wait to get stuck into the auld enemy. “Every Scot who plays rugby wants to beat the English,” he says with a chuckle, “and to do it in a World Cup would be special.”

Between the Six Nations and the World Cup, however, is a date that looms large in Murray’s diary, larger than any match. “My wife is due to give birth in June. I’m looking forward to being a father. It’s a very important role in a man’s life and with the Lord’s help I hope I’ll be a good and patient dad.”

Murray is a little apprehensive at the prospect of becoming a dad for the first time and he has one particular concern. “We live in Newcastle so I just hope when my wife’s waters break there’s enough time to put her in the car and drive across the border. Heaven forbid the baby’s born in England!”

Such wicked humour! It just goes to prove that Murray really is no longer a saint…

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine

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