Castres v Edinburgh: Here's to you Mr Robinson
Scotland's 'forgotten man' plans a game to remember for national coach
• Arm's length: Scott Murray in his Edinburgh days on the charge in a Heineken Cup match against Perpignan. Photograph: Susan Nisbet/SNS
CASTRES v EDINBURGH
Sky Sports 1 (red button), 5.45pm
"I'm only a few months older than Nathan Hines and I know I still have a lot to offer Scotland," says Scott Murray. "I'm always ready, always willing, but I think I've become the forgotten man - I'm out here in France, away from the Magners League and not on the telly back home, and I don't think Andy Robinson gets to see me play that often, if at all. I've certainly never spoken to him. That's just one of the reasons why these two games are so important."
The two games to which Murray is referring are his new club Castres' back-to-back Heineken Cup ties against Edinburgh. This Saturday will see Murray's men entertain Edinburgh at the Stade Pierre-Antoine, with the return match the following week at Murrayfield. For Edinburgh, narrowly beaten by Northampton Saints and Cardiff Blues in their opening two games, the matches are do or die; but for Murray they have a significance that is difficult for him to quantify.
For a start, this is Murray's big chance to stake one last claim for inclusion in Robinson's plans. Unlikely as that may sound - Murray may have 87 caps to his name but Hines, Al Kellock, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray and Scott MacLeod are all ahead of him in the pecking order - the veteran 34-year-old believes his form this year has been so compelling that he's worth a look.
Yet the Prestonpans lock is also realistic enough to know that this will, in all probability, be the last time that he plays at Murrayfield. "Even though the ground won't be packed as it was when I was playing for Scotland, it'll still be very emotional for me," he says. "I think saying goodbye to the stadium will give me a real thrill, especially as my family will all be there. I won't pull my punches on the pitch though, just because some of the guys are old mates; if anything that's why I'll go harder than ever, really try to put one over on them."
For all the dreams of an unlikely Indian summer with Scotland, and the emotional pull of bidding a farewell to Murrayfield in winning style against his former team-mates, there's also a more prosaic driving force behind Murray's need to excel against Edinburgh. After his former club Montauban went bust 12 months into his three-year contract, leaving him severely out of pocket, he signed a one-year deal with Castres, with an option for a further year. Castres decide in January whether to take up that option of a further year; the two Edinburgh games are his final chances to convince the French club to extend his time with them.
"I had a couple of other options in France, but I'd worked with the coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers before so, when they asked me to Castres I jumped at the opportunity," says Murray. "But they were always really honest with me, and said that there are a lot of good second rows at the club, so that I'd not be playing very often. As it turns out, I've played in all but two of the matches, have been playing pretty well and am injury-free. They say they want to keep me, but obviously these two games are very important for me."
A francophile wine-lover, Murray says he "loves everything about the life in France" and is clearly very keen to stay at Castres, a club which has in the past played host to Scots Tom Smith, Gregor Townsend, Stuart Moffat, Gordon Ross and Glenn Metcalfe. He seems to be in a pretty strong position to achieve that aim because, unlike some French clubs who find themselves in very tough groups, Castres haven't taken a step back and instead have thrown all their resources into the European campaign, with Murray rested for yesterday's game against local rivals Perpignan and told he would be playing in both Edinburgh matches. Castres, who "are right up for the Heineken Cup", have won one of their two matches in the competition so far, and are targeting two wins against Edinburgh, even though it was the Scots under Andy Robinson who comfortably won home and away the last time the two sides met in the competition in 2008-9.
Murray has got strong competition from French lock Matthias Rolland for the middle-jumper position, while Uruguayan Rodrigo Capo Ortega and Russian Kirill Kulemin battle it out for the front-jumper slot, but despite being knocked out against La Rochelle in an early game (he was so far gone that he started calling moves from his old club), so far Murray has more than held his own. Indeed, he now calls the lineouts, although that responsibility has been as much a burden as a boon: "I pretty much lost us the chance to beat Stade Francais in Paris in the last match when I called two lineouts wrong deep in their 22 in the last five minutes," he says.
Not that Castres seem to be struggling. After a slow start, recent bonus point wins over Agen and Bourgoin, plus a draw at Biarritz, mean they are in with a good chance of finishing in the top four, while their chances of fulfilling their other aim of qualifying from a pool that contains Northampton, Cardiff and Edinburgh will depend on the two games against the Scots. Murray says that he keeps showing his new team-mates video footage of the weather conditions in Edinburgh. "The overseas boys are fine but the Frenchies are horrified at the prospect of playing Edinburgh," says Murray with a laugh. "They keep looking at the pictures of the snow and asking whether it'll be called off. They're not happy at all."
Unfortunately for Edinburgh, while the achingly pretty 55,000-population town of Castres may be a bastion of French rugby, many of its team's key playmakers are currently overseas players who won't be worried by the Scottish chill. The skipper and former All Blacks No.8 Chris Masoe has been particularly influential this year, as has Kiwi outside-half Cameron McIntyre, who was formerly Dan Carter's understudy at Canterbury. In flanker Ibrahim Diarra and wing Marc Andreu, Castres also have French players of great flair and try-scoring potential. Murray says that the 12,000 fans who pack the Stade Pierre-Antoine each week demand that Castres play the beautiful game, but that they have the muscle to stick it up their jumpers if necessary.
The lock runs a property business with Kellock so gets regular updates on the Scottish clubs' progress, but he is also in regular touch with Edinburgh men like Tom Smith, Mike Blair, Chunk Jacobsen and Andy Kelly, so has been following their season with great interest. He says Castres have run the rule over Edinburgh and have flagged up the raw power of their front row, the mobility of their back row ("which will make the breakdown a nightmare for us"), Mike Blair's ability to break from deep and Tim Visser's try-scoring record. For once, however, Murray could be excused if he was more concerned with his own contribution rather than the opposition's performance, or even that of his own side. At 34, he says he's enjoying the game more than ever before, and despite praising the French for looking at the player rather than his birth certificate, as opposed to Scotland "where there's a stigma about being the wrong side of 30", there's little doubt that Murray is looking to the future.
"At the moment I'm playing good rugby and I'm injury-free, so I just want to carry on playing as long as possible. Maybe when I'm done at Castres I'll go and be a player-coach at Montauban, see if I've got any aptitude for coaching. But for now that's all down the road - there's only one thing on my mind at the moment, and that's beating Edinburgh home and away, then home to Prestonpans for Christmas Day for the first time for ages. It's not as good as playing for Scotland again, but it has a nice ring to it."
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Monday 20 May 2013
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