Scott Murray on beating South Africa, nearly blowing up Cindy Crawford's house and why that red card still hurts
He knows that everyone always puts it like this but the feeling was akin to preparing for battle. Real soldiers might baulk at the appropriation but Murray can, as it were, pull rank on other players who reach for the phrase. He was an “Army brat” who would definitely have enlisted if Murrayfield hadn’t claimed him first.
Now based in California where he coaches Major League Rugby - and one of an exclusive group who can say they’ve beaten today’s opponents South Africa - he tells me he also hankers for the old country. “I miss haggis and I miss my friends. The ones you make in rugby are special. The bonds are really deep.”
Right now, though, as we Zoom each other I’m not feeling too sorry for the former lock, last-ever Five Nations champ, veteran of three World Cups and Lions tourist. It’s cold and gloomy here in Edinburgh but I can see that in the coastal town of Carlsbad, San Diego the sun is blazing through his window. “Honestly, I can’t remember the last time it was cool enough that I needed to wear a jacket,” he says, and after we’re done he’ll be heading for the beach, just five minutes away. “I try and get in the ocean every day. Recently it’s been boogie-boarding because I’ve had a replacement hip fitted, but maybe it’s about time I manned up and got out the surfboard.”
Murray, now 45, certainly never chased ripcurls in Prestonpans, East Lothian. “I’m living the dream here,” he confirms, and sympathy for a Scot a long way from the homeland and his ain folk dissolves some more when he relates his encounter with Cindy Crawford.
Early in the Stateside adventure, loving Santa Monica but not its prices, he wasn’t earning enough from coaching university rugby at UCLA to pay the rent. “A friend put me in touch with this Welshman who ran a construction firm and took me on as a project manager.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but if I’d chosen this profession here was the top gig. Jobs worth between 800,000 dollars and a few million, all in Malibu. One day I was at David Duchovny’s place, the next I was out the back of another swanky house building a caboose. Cindy was actually my first client.”
Hang on, your correspondent had carpets laid today and was keeping the fitters topped up with tea - did the supermodel approach the Scottish rugby hero catwalk-style to take his order for “builders’”? “No, she wasn’t around unfortunately, though for her that was just as well. We were removing a barbecue and hit a gas line. Sparks were flying everywhere. I was phoning my boss: ‘Er, anything you would suggest here?’ It was quite scary. I nearly blew up her lovely home.”
But we don’t want to hear about one of the world’s most beautiful women, do we? Much better that Murray, now passing on tips from the middle-row boiler-house to the San Diego Legion pro-team, tells us what it was like to come face to face with the growling, gargantuan Springboks pack.
He did this eight times in his career, losing six of the games. “I didn’t grow up a rugby kid but watched South Africa win the  World Cup on TV. Two years later I was lining up against them at Murrayfield. The size of these guys!
“The first time I played against them was my second game for Scotland. Two weeks before I’d scored a try and we were leading Australia at half-time. I was like: ‘Wowee, can international rugby get any better?’ Well the Aussies came back to win and South Africa destroyed us. Ten tries, 68-10. I was like: ‘There’s a bang.’ Right back down to earth.
“Going into that game was daunting but you were excited about testing yourself against the world’s best. Really, though, it was men against boys. [Prop] Cobus Visagie was literally the biggest man I’d ever seen, before or since. Quite a few of their players seemed to be twice as big as me. [Murray stood at 6ft 7ins]. I’d still say the game was fun but a little bit demoralising as well.”
A woman has brought Murray to California - not Cindy but his wife Lisa. He says she doesn’t like the suggestion she dragged him over there - although it hardly sounds like he’s suffering - so he tells the story of how they met: “I was switching from Edinburgh to Montauban in France and a friend and I decided to have a holiday en route so we caught the ferry to Bilbao, moved on to San Sebastian, wandered into a tapas bar and there was Lisa, on her own, having been stood up by a chum who was hungover.
“She was studying in Spain and had a boyfriend at the time and I had a girlfriend but we kept in touch via Facebook. She came to see me play for Montauban, my very first game where the coach, in shouty French which I didn’t understand, said: “You’ve played for Scotland but you’re not there now. You’d better do well for us.’ I actually did okay, set up a try and stole a couple of lineouts. I’m not sure Lisa noticed but she said afterwards she loved the game.
“Later when she was back in California I messaged her to say I was going out there and maybe we could meet for coffee. We ended up in Barbados together and I really don’t know how that happened. Now we’ve got Jack who’s three and his little brother Joshua, a Covid baby. My mum back in Prestonpans is flying out in a few days to finally meet him and I’m thrilled.”
Murray has his face on a mural - the ’pans version of Mount Rushmore, near the site of the old coal pit - recognising the exploits of local boys done good and while chuffed about that he’s not really from anywhere.
His father, John, was a sergeant major in the Black Watch and, with mum Margaret and his brother and sister, Murray had the classic peripatetic childhood moving in all between 13 different schools. “I thought every child did that. When we holidayed in Prestonpans and visited all the aunties I’d make friends with local kids and as we were leaving say to them: ‘Will you be here the next time I come back?’”
The near-constant flitting caused some minor difficulties - “Being a tall fella with an accent that wasn’t 100 percent Scottish I’d get picked on” - and to help him integrate Murray as soon as he’d unpacked would join the nearest club. “Basketball, football, whatever. It was in Dundee that I tried rugby for the first time. I loved the camaraderie although probably wouldn’t have called it that then. I remember winning a prize of some sort and Nudger - Andy Nicol - presenting it. I didn’t have a clue who he was but a few years later I was playing for Scotland and he was my captain.”
Maybe most memorably the pair conspired to dash English Grand Slam dreams in the Murrayfield monsoon of 2000. “The first time you beat England there’s no greater feeling. I made a tackle in the dying minutes to stop Neil Back that when I watch it still gets me pumped.” Also in the Scotland team that day was Tom Smith, currently battling cancer and one of those friends from rugby that Murray misses.
“Tom is my mentor, my buddy and my best man. As soon as his cancer was discovered I flew over to see him and we message each other all the time. He’s been on chemo for almost two years now but, like Doddie [Weir, suffering from motor neurone disease] who I also played alongside, he’s a strong, courageous fella who’s battling brilliantly.”
It was basketball where Murray first showed prowess. By then living in Prestonpans, he played for Dalkeith Saints. Famously as a lofty teenager he was talent-spotted for the oval ball game while stacking shelves in the local branch of Presto. Now, Hollywood used to love charming tales of brawny Scotsmen. They should have followed up Geordie, the Ben Travers flick about a humble Highland Games entrant who graduates to the Olympics, with one called Scotty.
Murray laughs. “The exact words of this Preston Lodge official were: ‘You’re a big f****r, aren’t you? Come and play rugby.’” The story gets even better when he found out that, after a couple of years on the Scotland bench, he was to make his debut in that ’97 game against Australia. “Funnily enough I got the phonecall telling me I was playing in the same supermarket while shopping for Mum. I was so excited I dropped the basket in the aisle and ran home to tell her. She said: ‘That’s nice, son, but where are my messages?’”
Both his parents were at Murrayfield that day. “Mum never missed a Scotland game. Dad came to them at the start but when the matches turned into outings for the aunties he was like: ‘I think I’ll watch on TV now.’” So how did the old soldier react when Murray decided not to join up? “He was fine. Probably he was worried about what I’d do post-Army because that can be tough and he struggled himself. I was all set for it, though: loved the cadets, loved the shooting and the marching. But no regrets at all about choosing rugby.” Before the Wallabies match, underneath his peg in the changing-room and those of the other debutants, were letters from Grand Slam immortal Scott Hastings telling them how proud they should be. “I’ve got mine framed - a lovely touch.” And it was further confirmation he’d made the right choice of what to do with his life.
Murray spools back over more memories, the great and the not-so-good. He starred in that Five Nations triumph, still regrets it wasn’t a Slam but reckons the win in Paris was as close as Scotland in his time ever came to rugby perfection.
That must have pleased Jim Telfer. How would Murray describe his relationship with the head coach? “I loved him and how he challenged me but I’m not sure he ever knew my first name. It was always [adopts the Creamy grunt]: ‘Murray! … Murray! … Murray!’ Years later at a function we bumped into each other in the loos and he started nattering. After five minutes I said: ‘Do you know, Jim, I think that’s the most you’ve ever said to me.’ He just laughed.”
As a coach himself he admits he’d hate to have the young Scott Murray under his command. “I was quite laidback as a player and think I must have been hard work for always mucking about. There were a lot of pranks.” Example, please. “Well, when Gregor [Townsend] was the star of the team he had his own sponsorship deal. The slogan was ‘Gregor Townsend wears Reebok’ so all over our hotel myself and Marty [Martin Leslie] put up these posters: ‘Gregor Townsend wears suspenders’, ‘Gregor Townsend wears a bra’ - that kind of juvenile nonsense. There was a tradition of little groups of players going out for midweek dinners before internationals. We discovered where he was eating and stuck posters in the restaurant as well. He went mad. Sorry, Gregor - but he’s doing brilliantly now as head coach, isn’t he?”
In 2001 Murray was selected for the Lions tour of Australia but didn’t make the Test XV. “That was a tough time for me. I didn’t play well and it’s not like I didn’t try but I think I was a little bit overawed by being in the room with the [Jonny] Wilkinsons and the [Martin] Johnsons.” Then in 2004 he achieved the notoriety of, at the time, being only the second-ever Scot to be red-carded for what was deemed a boot to the face of a Welsh opponent. “Guys over here don’t know much about me but, thanks to Google, they’re aware of that. Maybe I kicked out although it didn’t feel like I had. Referees have a tough job, though, so I wanted to respect the decision. But I was heartbroken about it and it still hurts now.”
There’s some consolation, though, in having played a not insignificant part in doing down the Springboks. Indeed one report on the Murrayfield victory by 21-6 in 2002 hailed Murray’s performance as “magnificent”.“It was an incredible game and we were pretty convincing winners. That South African team might be considered one of the poorest to tour here but they always hate losing. Their head coach was Rudolf Streauli who’d been in charge at Bedford when I was there. I tried to speak to him afterwards but he didn’t want to know.
“Myself and Tom Smith were at a dinner that night. John Beattie was hosting and he got us up. He made a point of saying that beating the Springboks was something which could never be taken away from us. Probably what we’d achieved hadn’t quite sunk in until that moment.
“I think I had a pretty good game. I remember getting my head down for a ten-metre charge. And when they kicked through I was able to scoop up the ball with one hand. This amazed my sister Lynda. ‘I didn’t know you could do that,’ she said.” An old basketball trick, perhaps, and now the ocean is calling him. Through slightly gritted teeth as the rain starts battering my window I tell him to have a nice day, happy surfing, and mind that hip.
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