‘It was the first time I have cried in front of the boys’

Murphy-Walker's fledgling career has been a stalled affair, as you can understand his feelings as he prepared for his first outing in a Glasgow shirt in 17 months last Saturday.

There were easier places to return than Pretoria's famous Loftus Versfeld stadium. At an altitude of 1,300 meters in the High Veldt, South Africa. The match kicks off at 2pm local time, with the sun at its peak and Mercury's temperature around 30 degrees Celsius. And opponents in Jake White's Bulls are determined to topple the URC leaders and give their top four – or perhaps top two – hopes a huge boost.

No wonder Walker declared himself “pretty surprised” when Warriors coach Franco Smith told him he would be starting a game of such importance, given how long it had been between drinks.

“Yes, we trained 512 days after the last match,” he said with a sad smile. “It was a strange day because I didn't know how to feel before the game. It was almost like making my debut all over again. I didn't know whether to feel nervous, excited, scared… all these emotions rolled into one.

“It was obviously a tough place to go, because of the heat and the altitude. The Bulls at home are always going to be tough. But the first game back, it was good to be out there and I felt fit playing.”

Walker (centre, wearing headband) was playing his first game for Glasgow since December 2022 against the Bulls (Photo by Steve Haag Sports/URC)

There were moments, inevitably, when the 24-year-old's lungs burned as he reacquainted himself with the dubious pleasures and pain of crashes at a time of revelry.

“I felt it – I'm not going to lie – and I was torn to pieces, but it had to do with the training we've been doing over the last eight weeks, which was to help with how quickly you recover when you're completely blown away.

“There were times when I was struggling. But I think everyone at the Garden was at those points. It was good to get my first game back and I'm very grateful for that.”

His return took only 31 minutes. Walker was part of a starting front-row trio including teammate Jimmy Bhatti, who returned after two months out, and hooker Grant Stewart, in his first appearance since returning to the club on a full-time basis last month.

I think most props will tell you about the neck lift machine we have in Scotstoun, where you sit in this chair and pull your neck up. I had to sit in that contraption every day.

All three departed at the same juncture in a pre-determined plan to give the rusty returnees some invaluable minutes before bringing in the more solid Xander Fagerson, Jonny Matthews and Nathan McBeath to do battle against the Bulls.

If the start wasn't necessarily part of the whole plan — “Let's just say Franco has a lot of plans, so you can read into them what you want,” Walker said — his relatively brief return to the coalface did little to dampen his enthusiasm. After a long time away.

Saturday was only Walker's 17th dayy Rugby for seniors has exploded over the past three seasons. Three of them were for Scotland. His Test debut, off the bench against Fiji in November 2022, came after just eight matches – and just three – for Glasgow.

Having gained momentum with the Scotland Under-20s after joining the Warriors' academy straight from school, he missed the entire 2020-21 season with a hamstring tear, delaying his Warriors debut until October 2021.

His growing potential was clear enough though that after just six appearances, Gregor Townsend took him on a tour of South America in the summer of 2022, giving him an extra 20 minutes off the bench in a first-class international against Chile.

Walker was just preparing for last season – from October to late December, he officiated eight matches, including his first two appearances for Scotland in the autumn Tests – when his injury problems resurfaced.

Walker enjoyed a steady run of games in late 2022, before injury hampered his progress. (Photo by Ross McDonald/SNS Collection/Glasgow Warriors)

“I hurt my neck in Franco's first year as coach and I literally fought back this time last year. I think most props will tell you about the neck stretching machine we have at Scotstoun, where you sit in this chair and pull your neck up. I had to sit in that contraption every day.

“It helped me get fit but at that stage we were looking for continuity in the team and obviously it's difficult to raise your hand when you get to the finals and the boys are playing well. So I played two first-class games.”

Although he did not feature for Glasgow's first team during the second half of the campaign, Walker's brief return to fitness saw him included in Scotland's initial training gig for the World Cup. He started the opening warm-up test against Italy but lost out to Javan Sebastian for third place in the final tally.

Upon his return to Scotstoun to begin preparations for the new URC campaign, his misfortune reached new depths.

I had meniscus surgery in my right knee, and that was truly one of the hardest moments of my life. I think it was the first time I cried in front of the boys and in front of Franco in the physical therapy room.

“I tore my calf and was a week away from getting fit to play against Leinster [in Glasgow’s opening game] But I tore my quad in an off-line session, which is unheard of in rugby where you don't really tear your quads. It's more than just football players being injured.

“Then eight weeks after that, I was a week away from getting fit to play against Munster [in early December]So they wanted to give me some game time against Edinburgh A.

“Literally 15 minutes later, I had the meniscus surgery on my right knee, and that was really one of the hardest moments of my life. I think it was the first time I cried in front of the boys and in front of Franco in the physical therapy room. That was definitely one of the hardest moments for me.” For me, it's all worth it now, I think.”

Walker pays tribute to how the Warriors staff and teammates pulled together during his darkest hours, especially physiotherapist Michael Clarke, who “set me little goals here and there that kept me driving to get fit.”

“The support system in Glasgow is amazing,” he said. “They have everything lined up if you need someone to talk to. The boys have been good around me and my family too. I know deep down that injuries are part of the job, so it's something I have to deal with. I kept saying I'm doing my dream job which I love, As frustrating as the injuries are, I can't really complain too much.

Kurt Lee Arends
Glasgow struggled against the Bulls for an hour before a late comeback rescued two bonus points (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

His reward for enduring pain, frustration and endless hours in the gym was a new two-year contract, announced last week, and the chance to jump-start a late career that had been on pause for much of the past 17 months.

“Obviously I'm very grateful that Glasgow wanted to keep me. After the last two years, I felt in myself that I owed something not just to the coaches here, but to the fans and the players, to show that I wanted to contribute.

“When you sit on the sidelines and watch the boys go well, you just want to be part of it. Now that I'm back, all I want to do is play well for Glasgow and show everyone that I'm not just here to sit on the bench in the injured club.

The near future is full of possibilities. Having picked up two bonus points with a thrilling late comeback against the Bulls to keep alive their hopes of a top-two finish, Glasgow travel to Johannesburg for Saturday's penultimate match of the regular season against the Lions. After their final home game against bottom side ZEBRE in a fortnight, the knockout stages will see the Warriors desperate to improve on their disappointing quarter-final exit last year.

“I can't wait for the next few games now, especially with the playoffs coming up,” Walker said. “I haven't played in a knockout match for years – probably as a schoolboy it will be the last time – so this really interests me, as it does the rest of the boys.”

It would be great to go on a summer tour and get that recognition, but at the same time I only played half an hour last year, so it's not something I expect.

Beyond that, another tantalizing possibility. Scotland's summer tour itinerary includes tests in Ottawa, Washington, Santiago and Montevideo in a month-long trip to North and South America.

Gregor Townsend has kept in touch during Walker's extended spell on the sidelines, as has Scotland coach Peter de Villiers, whom he met last week as he prepares for his return, drawing on the South African-born former Frenchman's extensive knowledge. What might await him against the Bulls.

“Coaches tend to do that with a lot of kids,” Walker said. “It was nice to know that you were still able to chat to them. As a nervous person, it's great to do cool stuff with Peter. I've worked on some clips with him, and that's been very helpful.”

Walker's return is timely, with revered WP Nel deciding to call time on his career once Edinburgh's season ends, and Scotland desperate for more long-term support for Zander Fagerson in the tough division.

Xander Fagerson
Scotland seek to build more depth behind first-choice Xander Fagerson (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sebastian has returned to more regular action for Edinburgh in recent weeks, while Elliot Millar-Mills has started impressively for Northampton after winning his first three games off the bench during this year's Six Nations.

But getting Walker fully fit over the next month would be an additional option for Townsend, with Fagerson – a lion in 2021 and a potential contender for next year's Tour of Australia – one of the forwards the coach might ideally choose to rest. For a trip this summer to Canada, the United States, Chile and Uruguay.

“Obviously it would be great to go on the summer tour and get that recognition, but at the same time I only played half an hour last year, so it's not something I'm expecting,” Walker added.

All I want to do is get back to my fitness and get back to playing well for Glasgow. “If Scotland comes it will be just a bonus – a cherry on top of the cake.”


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