‘I feel alive again’
10 May 2011
RYAN VREDE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, discovers that Waylon Murray is rebuilding his life one game at a time.
In 2007 he was among the best outside centres on the planet. Springbok selection duly followed and there were widespread cries of dismay when he was overlooked for the World Cup squad. Still, at just 20, his emergence was celebrated in a country with a dearth of world-class outside centres.
Some astute observers predicted he would become the heir to Jaque Fourie’s throne. Never would one have foretold a derailment so spectacular that four years later Murray doesn’t hesitate in calling his move to the Lions ‘a rebirth’. He would ultimately inherit Fourie’s jersey, but not the one he coveted and certainly not in the circumstances he would have envisaged.
Injury curtailed his progress in Durban, and the more time he spent on the treatment table the more the memories of his impressive feats of 2007 were eroded. Out of sight, out of mind.
Limited game time, often as a wing, reflected the coaches’ diminished estimation. Murray’s form in turn hinted at a player with a severely fractured confidence.
‘It cut deeply to feel rejected and unwanted by the team I grew up wanting to play for, especially after I thought I’d proved my aptitude,’ he says. ‘At the end of my time at the Sharks I was constantly doubting my ability. I had a defeatist mindset. Mentally I was gone. When your confidence is shot the harder you try, the worse you make your situation. I knew it was time for a fresh start, but leaving Durban, my mom and my brother especially, was the hardest career decision I’ve ever had to make.’
To fully appreciate the magnitude of the decision you have to inspect Murray’s life more closely and take into account that his heart and head were engaged in nuclear warfare.
His mother Imogene raised him and his brother Auryn on a modest income. Murray’s parents divorced when he was 12 and neither he nor his father has felt moved to reconnect. Uncles stepped into the paternal void, but the legacy of being raised by a woman is evident in Murray’s unimposing, gentle and genial manner. Westville Boys’ High was well beyond her means, but her sons attended nonetheless.
‘She’s my hero. She always supported us even with the little she earned. I am what I am because of the emotional and financial investments she made,’ he says.
He is fiercely protective of her, making the thought of leaving Durban unbearable. Scroll through Murray’s contacts list and you’ll find more childhood friends than high-profile rugby players. Compounding the complexity of the decision was that he was in the infancy of a serious relationship.
The Lions’ offer wasn’t the only one to consider, the Bulls were also in hot pursuit, believing Murray to be the man to dovetail with Wynand Olivier. Murray and his family had spent childhood holidays with family in Johannesburg and he knew the city well. This combined with what he believed was ‘something special’ brewing at the Lions, the promise of regular game time and the franchise’s capacity to exponentially improve its squad thanks to substantial investment from billionaire businessman Robert Gumede, settled the matter.
‘I feel alive again. The significance of my move to the Lions can never be understated. Most players’ identities and sense of self-worth are rooted in rugby. When you’re struggling on the pitch you don’t really enjoy life off it. I’d like to think I’ve become more emotionally mature now which has allowed me to separate the two, but certainly at the time that was the way I felt.
‘The Lions offered me an opportunity to play again and in many ways to live again. The more I played the more my belief grew. Making it through a whole Currie Cup last year was immense for my confidence. Then in pre-season [for Super Rugby] I worked harder than I ever have. The result was that I came into the season feeling stronger, faster and fitter than at any point in my career.’
Murray’s one-time midfield partner at the Sharks, Brad Barritt, believes the switch has galvanised him.
‘I still follow Super Rugby closely [Barritt is an analyst for Sky Sports] and can see signs of the player he has the potential to be, starting to surface again,’ says Barritt, who signed for English club Saracens in 2008. ‘I can relate to what Waylon went through just before he left the Sharks. You want to feel like you’re rated and when that validation isn’t there you start to question yourself.
‘To bounce back from serious injury and that type of rejection in the way he has speaks of his character and immense talent. I’ve seen players go through what he has and never be the same again. He’s never moaned in the press, he simply put his head down and started again.’
New Zealander John Mitchell has been tasked with panelbeating the rusty wreck that is the Lions into shape. His assessment criteria for the players he believes can elevate the beleaguered franchise is twofold: technical ability and their mental constitution. Murray, he says, has impressed him across the board.
‘He’s got a pretty complete skill set, but I want him to be a player who can influence the result. He’s not there yet, but that’s not through lack of effort,’ Mitchell says. ‘His temperament will improve the more he wins and loses close games against elite opponents and so will his game intelligence and game management.’
Mitchell is the midwife in Murray’s metaphorical rebirth, assisting with his delivery back into a world he used to inhabit with confidence and appreciable skill before being slain by those ruthless assassins of self-doubt and fear of failure.
‘I see him as a father figure in many ways. Most of the boys feel the same and he seems happy to assume that role. He is the type of coach I respond to – brutally honest in his assessment of your performance but you know it’s because he cares and wants to ensure you are improving.
‘I think he’s got a bad rap from some quarters. In nine months he’s taken a relatively young side with a number of new recruits further than what was reasonable to expect. He’s had to change old habits that had become part of the culture here and instil his philosophies in the players.
‘Results have been poor and we’ll take responsibility for that. Winning is always the priority, we’re never satisfied with a brave defeat. Mitch has made it very clear that those days are behind us. But the overriding view within the squad is that we’re progressing. I think we’ll improve with a couple of high-profile signings. Butch James is on his way already and a player of that calibre is certain to elevate your game.’
Murray’s form early in the tournament was a throwback to his rookie days. Certainly the confidence he speaks of is evident, and his technical and tactical game has improved as a result, especially defensively, where he’s maturing into an asset in a channel widely agreed to be the toughest to defend in.
It’s premature to open a debate about his Springbok prospects. Murray readily agrees that he is some way off his optimal form.
‘Jaque Fourie is the standard, isn’t he? I do compare myself to him, and other high-quality centres, and I’ve been happy with how I’ve measured up. The difference is that he is so consistent and that’s what I have to strive for.
‘It’s a process to get back to where I want to be, and hopefully that process culminates in Springbok selection. I’m not naive, I know that [Springbok coach] Peter de Villiers has a couple of names in mind already, and I’m not on that list. The challenge is to consistently play better than those men.
‘It’s daunting, but it’s also not an all-consuming thing. I made the Springbok side in 2007 without casting my mind to selection. It was a by-product of consistency with the Sharks. I desperately want to be in New Zealand with the Springboks later this year. But to get there my focus has to be with the Lions.’
World Cup-winning Springbok backline coach and current Stormers mentor Allister Coetzee cautions that expectations of Murray must be tempered, but stresses that he possesses the qualities to play Test rugby again.
‘You have to take into account that when he became a Springbok in 2007 he did so from a Sharks team where he played outside Butch James and Brad Barritt,’ Coetzee begins. ‘Both were direct players who committed defenders and in doing so created gaps he could exploit. I don’t think the Lions are there yet in terms of personnel so he’d have to be exceptional to scale those heights again.
‘That said, there are few players I’ve coached who have his hunger to improve and evolve. He has massive physicality on attack and defence, which is a great platform to work from.
‘I’ve been privileged to coach Jaque Fourie for a number of years and he ticks all the boxes for a Test 13 – the physicality Waylon already possesses, excellent reading of the play on attack and defence, superb running lines, the speed to take the outside gap, as well as a complete passing game. The less tangible aspects like calmness under pressure come with experience at that level.
‘When I look at Waylon I see a player who has the potential to play Test rugby again. Jaque is the standard by which he must measure himself. He’s already shown early in the tournament how good he can be. We know he’s good, but I’d love to see him excel again.’
– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 18 May.
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