x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Duncan Murray just happy to be back on centre stage

The former centre returns from a one-year ban to a new position for the Dubai Hurricanes.

Duncan Murray struggled during the training at the Sevens rugby ground in Dubai on his return.
Duncan Murray struggled during the training at the Sevens rugby ground in Dubai on his return.

Summer is a long time in rugby in the UAE. This afternoon represents the first serious game the majority of the players will have had for the best part of six months.

The quantity surveyors, bank managers, teachers, students, et al who make up the domestic rugby fraternity have probably been crawling up the walls waiting for today to arrive.

They should spare a thought for Duncan Murray.

The Dubai Hurricanes centre should be one of the most highly regarded players in the domestic game today, but anyone who just arrived on the scene in the past 16 months will not recognise him.

He has been forced to sit out the game he loves for all of that time, even though the mind has been sharp and the body willing.

Back in 2010, while on international duty for the UAE in the Asian Five Nations, he tested positive for a banned stimulant he had unwittingly consumed via an over-the-counter energy drink.

His initial two-year suspension was reduced to one on appeal and today is his first game back; the first day of the rest of his rugby career. "I am looking forward to it, but I'm also quite apprehensive," said the 30-year-old back, who formerly played professionally with the English Premiership club Gloucester before moving to Dubai.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I wish I had done a bit more training, but I am just playing rugby to get the enjoyment back.

"I have had breaks from the game before, with a broken jaw and a broken leg. But that was only three or four months - never 16 months, in 23 years of playing the game."

Murray will start at inside centre for the defending champions this evening. His return after such a long absence is a boost not just for Dubai's pre-eminent club side, but for UAE rugby as a whole.

The player himself says he has no fixed ambitions over returning to national team duty, suggesting the game in this country has moved on rapidly since he has been gone.

"A few people have been asking if I will be back targeting playing for the UAE but I just want to be enjoying my rugby then see what happens," he said.

"The overall standard of UAE rugby is getting better every year. Every club has been getting new players every season, and the overall standard has gone up."

However, Chris Gregory, the long-serving Hurricanes captain, has no doubts over the merits of a player he has played alongside in both club and international rugby.

"He has found it hard to train because he has a new job, and he hopes to get a bit fitter but his ball skills are still there," Gregory said.

"He knew he still had the ability but he couldn't get it back as quick [during the Hurricanes' inter-club warm-up match two weeks ago]. He couldn't think quite so quickly, but he can still land that pass right on the nail."

Much of the Hurricanes side this evening seem like the team that last season forgot.

Murray missed the whole of the campaign, as did James Ham, the fit-again fly-half who will be playing inside him.

Ham, a controlling influence with a prodigious boot at No 10, should at least be immediately au fait with all the side's set moves.

While recovering from serious injury last term, he served as the Hurricanes head coach, a role that has since been passed on to Chris Burch, an Australian schoolteacher who has been elevated from the playing ranks.

In the forward pack, Garrett Noonan, the UAE second rower, will be playing his first competitive match since being hospitalised after developing blood clots on his lungs before Christmas.

Hurricanes have not been quite so active as their main rivals in the transfer market this summer, preferring to rely on their old fail safe method of recruitment.

According to their captain it is no more scientific than, on an evening out socialising, "going up to the biggest bloke in there and seeing if he plays rugby".

They will be in direct conflict with another old friend for the first time at The Sevens this evening when they face the Abu Dhabi Saracens, the Premiership newcomers. Having played at the club for eight seasons before leaving for the start-up side in the capital last term, Ian Gregory will always be regarded as part of the Hurricanes family.

He will play in opposition to hisa brother Chris for the first time in the UAE Premiership today.

"It is going to feel weird having to tackle him," the Hurricanes scrum-half said.