HE IS a reassuring presence, Euan Murray, both physically and mentally. Solid, self-assured and unflustered, the tighthead prop epitomises the message coming from Scotland coach Scott Johnson: don’t panic.
Johnson refused to consider wholesale changes after last week’s defeat by England and Murray and his fellow-forwards are not about to turn their own game upside down either. As they prepare for Saturday’s home game against Italy, they are well aware that there is ample room for improvement, but are confident that conscientious work can bring it about.
“We’re working hard on the things that didn’t go so well at the weekend,” said Murray, who won his 50th cap in that Calcutta Cup match. “We’re working a lot on technique. Just trying to get things correct.
“We’re looking a lot at the tackle contest, because we felt we were slower than England. We couldn’t get round the corner in defence. We’re working hard on these areas.”
Of course, there is a delicate balance to be struck between honestly examining those things that went wrong at Twickenham, and ensuring that you do not dwell on them to such an extent that you become dismayed. Players may feel discouraged from looking on the positive side in the immediate aftermath of a heavy defeat, but when pressed, Murray accepted that some aspects of Scotland’s performance in the RBS Six Nations opener had constituted grounds for optimism.
“I think at times our lineout functioned well, and we got over the gain line,” the Worcester prop continued. “So we just need to make these things happen every time.
“And we scored two tries at Twickenham. These are good things. We were in their 22 and put pressure on them. You take the positives and work on them.
“We did well at times against England, other times not so well. We’re just looking at being more consistent this week.”
The received wisdom about Italy is that they are formidable up front, but not quite so dangerous behind the scrum. Murray believes that is an outdated perception, and that the Italians, while well balanced, are not notably superior in any department to the other teams in the tournament.
“Italy have a big, strong pack, [but] to be honest, they have strengths all over the field. A lot of their players are playing at the top level in France. They’ve got a lot of experience throughout the team. All the teams are fairly similar in terms of ability. It’s always a tough competition.
“They did really well [against France]. It shows what you can do if you’re determined.”
That emphasis on the positive is certainly being employed by Johnson, who according to Murray believes that even apparently minor semantic differences can influence the way in which players think. Take one of the areas where Scotland clearly came off second best last Saturday – the breakdown. “The tackle contest,” Murray said when asked about the work the interim coach had insisted was required in that department. “He likes to call it the tackle contest.
“It’s important, because ‘the breakdown’ has negative connotations, whereas ‘the tackle contest’ is more of a positive. It’s not a negative in a game, it’s an opportunity to make space and get numbers down in their team and numbers up in your team.”
As a man whose Christian beliefs prevent him from playing on a Sunday, Murray is in a strange position this weekend. No matter how well or how badly he plays against the Italians, he will be out of Scotland’s next home game, against Ireland on the 24th.
Such a fact might motivate some men. Others could be influenced into throwing everything they have into this weekend’s match, in the hope of performing to such a high standard that they will get their place back the minute they are available again – which in this case will be 15 days later, when Ireland come to Murrayfield.
But Murray does not fall into either camp, insisting that will not be distracted by such circumstances. “I try and put in the hardest performance I can every time I play. You don’t know how many times you’ll play for Scotland, ever. You can be injured at any time and that’s the end of your career. If you get selected you play as hard as you can. It’s up to the selectors what they do with selection.”