Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mathieu Bastareaud back for France determined to repair his damage

Euan Murray wraps his arms around his 18st body and shivers. The Northampton Saints and Scotland tighthead prop is a mountain of a man, but he looks vulnerable when facing the subject of his religious choices.

This Sunday, as Scotland take on France at Murrayfield in their first match of the Six Nations, the 29-year‑old will not be on the pitch. He has decided to forgo Sunday matches, and all non-religious activity that affects the Christian Sabbath – including interviews with Sunday newspapers.

Tired of explaining himself, he recently informed his club that he would no longer discuss the decision, and so as we approach the subject Murray sighs. He rearranges his feet on the coffee table in front of him, and sinks deeper into his coat, visibly retreating. "What do you want me to say about it? I don't think I need to say much about it. It's a decision, a difficult decision I had to make. And I'm happy with my decision."

There is a stony silence. The interest in his story has been intense and there is a weariness apparent over being cast in the role of religious curiosity of the week. But it is impossible for Murray not to discuss the subject in detail because his two great loves – rugby and Christianity – are so inextricably linked. Even as he speaks the language of the two collide. "Take my yoke upon thee …" he says, quoting the Bible, before pausing to note the irony. "You know like the yoke we use in training?"

To sacrifice one for the other has been tough and there is a revealing sadness in his voice as he describes what it has been like to miss games for Northampton. "I missed being part of it," he says quietly. "Someone actually told me the score the last time and I was really, really happy that we'd won."

Does he sometimes wonder if he's made the right decision? There is a very long pause. "I believe that biblically I've made the right decision." And emotionally? Murray blows out his cheeks. "Well, when you really become a Christian, life's a battle. You're going against the tide. The crowd are going one way and you're going another. It's always going to be a battle to be different. The easy thing is to go along with the crowd, everybody's doing it. You know? Try going the opposite direction to a crowd. It's hard. You won't get very far."

Murray was raised as a Christian, his mother taking the family to church in Glasgow. But he only turned to Christ in earnest after he was knocked unconscious in a game against Munster in September 2005. For those who witnessed the incident, the images are distressing. A collision with Anthony Horgan's knee sent Murray's head snapping back. As he lay on the pitch, his face contorted, his body writhing, he suffered a horrific seizure. Those around him thought he was dying. When he finally regained consciousness he entered a state of delirium, swaying on his feet and battling with the paramedics as he roared in confusion.

"Sometimes it takes a bang on the head to wake someone up," he says. "Some people don't get that chance. For some people it's bang, dead." He laughs.

He suggests that the path many professional sportsmen follow is "rotten". He tries to explain. "All the shiny bubbles," he says, holding out his big hands and shaking his head in sadness. "The money, the possessions, the fame, the great elusive relationship – all bubbles that appear perfectly spherical, all the colours of the rainbow. They're bright and shiny and light as a feather, and you chase them because it's good fun, but the minute you get them they burst and they're empty." He pauses. "I'd had enough of chasing bubbles."

In a portrait of Murray it would be misleading to only reference the religious sportsman. As a young boy growing up in the countryside south of Glasgow he worked on a farm, mucking out the outhouses, feeding the milk calves. "I loved working with animals, and the manual hard work," he says. "It made me strong."

He went on to qualify as a veterinarian – "because I love puppies and kittens," he jokes – only embarking on a professional rugby career at the advanced age of 23. Even so, during that first year of rugby he still practised as a vet one day a week, before deciding to give it up and focus on the game.

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