THE loss of loose-head prop Sam Grahamslaw during the build-up to their second match in this year’s Six Nations championship was a major blow to the Scotland Under-20s team. The Leicester Tigers academy prospect is a giant of a man, with experience of playing at this level having been involved in last year’s U20 World Championship, and he had made a huge impression in both the tight and loose during the campaign opener against Italy.
Fortunately, for head coach Carl Hogg, he had two pretty useful tight-heads at his disposal, and one of them – Stirling County’s Murphy Walker – was both willing and capable of shuffling across the front-row to fill the gap.
“I played loose-head for Scotland Under-18s down in Wales [in 2017] and then I moved to tight-head for the Under-20s last year when there was a bit of a prop crisis after a couple of boys got injured,” explained the 19-year-old, who played eight game off the bench the Under-20s last season, despite still being in his final year at Strathallan School. “I played pretty much all of the Six Nations and World Championships at tight-head and really enjoy it. For the team, its handy that I can play both, so I was happy to move across to play on the loose-head.
“Both have different techniques and arts to them, but my preference is tight-head,” he added. “I’d say that going from tight to loose-head is easier than going from loose to tight, which I found was almost like learning it all over again.”
It certainly seems to have worked out okay so far for both Walker and the team, with Scotland’s scrum providing the bedrock to the side as they have grown collectively during the course of this campaign in terms of belief and general understanding of what is required, culminating in their superb win over Wales last Friday night.
“The scrums last year were a challenge,” acknowledged Walker. “I went from school straight into international Under-20s rugby, which was a huge step-up. There was a lot of pressure coming onto my side, so we did struggle, especially against the likes of Argentina and Italy who have big packs.
“Whereas this year, we know we are not the biggest pack so have relied on our height in the scrum with the back five providing the pressure, and we have been much better. We were dominant against France and Ireland and showed that we can hold up against Wales. So, it’s good to see that we are becoming the dominant pack having not once taken the back seat.”
Since switching across to loose-head, Walker has played 80-minutes against Ireland, 72-minutes against France and 75-minutes against Wales. That is an almighty workload, but the player isn’t complaining.
“I have played the full 80-minutes in nine games so far this season, whereas I think the most game-time I got last year was 50-minutes,” he explained. “That’s the way I want it, I love playing long games.
“I want as much game time as possible – training as well – I am not a fan of the week off because you just want to keep the ball rolling,” he added. “I don’t want to have a down week and come back in and be in not as good form as I was. I enjoy playing every week. If you are in good form you want to stay in good form. If you have a week off and drop out it is frustrating to have to find your form again.”
He does, however, anticipate that Scotland’s final game of the championship, against England in Northampton tonight [Friday] will be a significant step up in terms of what is demanded of him and his team-mates in the tight.
“They have a good scrum, pretty much the best scrum in the Six Nations,” he said. “We’ve previewed them, but our main focus is on ourselves. If we can get our drill and process in the scrum right, we have shown that we can get penalties and be dominant, like against France when we managed to get three or four decisions.”
That Wales result ensures that whatever happens tonight, the championship will not be categorised as a complete write-off, but Walker insists that the team will take to the field at Franklin’s Gardens determined to build on their recent success, rather than leaving it as an isolated peak.
“To an extent, I did [see that Wales win coming] because every single session we did that whole week had was spot on,” he reflected. “There were hardly any balls down, boys made the right impact when we needed it, everything just ran so smoothly – and it’s been the same this week as well. It’s pretty exciting.
“The boys have belief, which I think that was lacking in the first couple of games,” he added. “That win was a massive boost to us, and now we’re just raring to get out there again.”