Cadan Murley is in a dogfight. Everywhere he looks there is class-leading quality. To his left he can see Anthony Watson, veteran of two Lions tours, still snapping ankles for fun with his footwork. To his right he can see, ‘Big’ Joe Cokanasiga, who on a lean day, tips the scales at 17 ½ stone. In close proximity, stands Max Malins, a multi-faceted player who could fill myriad shirts, while in eyeshot, he can see the human Exocet, and wunderkind, Henry Arundell, who has the type of x-Factor and comic-book strength to light up a stadium. Finally, you have the Mac Daddy, Jonny May, who, with 35 tries, is England’s second top scorer in the men’s game and boasts the sort of experience you can’t buy.
Still Murley, is not overawed. He’s still bobbing and weaving with the current squad whittled down to 39 and six taps on the shoulder still to be made.
Meeting the Harlequins flyer at the England training base, the 23-year-old is wide-eyed, hoovering up information like an over-eager truffle hound and relishing the opportunity to rub shoulders with England’s elite, with just 48 days to the Rugby World Cup.
Indeed, Murley needn’t have an inferiority complex mixing in such a rarefied air. He has had a stellar season in a faltering Harlequins team, topping the Premiership’s try-scoring chart, with 15 tries. His raw acceleration was evident at Twickenham, when Marcus Smith put him away and he could feel the presence of fellow speedster Josh Hodge breathing down his neck in a heart-stopping footrace. His raw power was on show against Saracens, where head down, he flared his nostrils and powered through Malins from a short distance, and against Northampton, his finishing prowess was lauded as he took to the air to finish in balletic fashion, millimetres from the corner flag.
His workrate is prodigious, too. He hit more rucks than any other wing in the Premiership and lies third in tackles completed. His game involvements show that he has creative, selfless instincts. He is far from just a finisher and lies third in the list for try-assists and second for line-break assists.
It begs the question, ‘is he the ‘best wing in the Premiership?’, as his Wikipedia page helpfully points out?
Cue a guttural laugh and a twist of his D’Artagnan moustache. “No comment. I got told about that the other day, and I think it’s a new entry – I’m not sure if it’s one of my mate’s stitching me up!”
Jokes aside, Murley may be modest in stature, but meeting him in person, you can see his physique is intimidating, more Mike Tyson than David Duckham. In pre-season, he is a fully-loaded 100kgs (15st 10lbs – the same fighting weight as Tyson), though he says his in-season weight hovers around the 15 stone mark.
Called into an England squad for the first time in November, he admitted that the learning curve, at times, has given him a nosebleed, but he’s loved every minute. “Compared to the club game, the big difference is intensity. Not just in terms of volume and communication but how switched on you have to be in every single play. Off the pitch, it’s your attitude to recovery that enables you to train at that intensity and stay fit. I’m not going to lie, when I first came in in the Autumn, it was a bit daunting. You’re quickly pulled up if you’re not doing something right, but they do it in a constructive way and try to get you up to speed as quickly as possible.”
With the aforementioned competition for places white-hot, low-level anxiety and a frisson excitement courses through the camp. “The nerves build before training,” he smiles. “The adrenalin kick you get is good for you. You need it because every session coaches are scrutinising your every move. It is exhausting, and put it this way, I haven’t had an issue sleeping. I can asleep any time and any place. It’s one of my better habits.”
The three-month training block has had to be managed and Steve Borthwick and his team have mixed up the activities to prevent boredom kicking in; a hot-weather trip to Verona, a dip in the sea at Brighton, and a jaunt at the races were all constructed to consolidate bonds. They even had a visit from ‘The Beast’, of The Chase fame. “It’s been class. Day-to-day, we fit in a bit of cards and lot of darts. I play Gin Rummy with a few of the Leicester boys like Freddie Steward and Jack van Poortvliet, which is pretty intense. There’s also the odd bit of chess, where Manu (Tuilagi) is the grand master. The boys steer clear when he’s on the board.”
Murley is in the mix, of course, for his poacher’s ability to sniff out the whitewash. There are a few factors to the art of scoring, in his estimation. “Scoring tries is about confidence and it helps that I’ve been lucky to have a run of games. Secondly it’s about doing your homework. As a United fan, Marcus Rashford is a much more complete player, but watching Erling Haaland and watching all those records tumble has been very impressive.”
“It’s the same in rugby. Most wings are just looking for that half-a-gap, that window of opportunity, however fleeting. People say Haaland’s just a tap-in merchant, but you’ve got to be there in the first place. There’s a reason he scores all those goals. He can almost second guess what the players around him are going to do. He looks for (Kevin) De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, or Bernardo Silva. Their body language, a little look here, a drop of the shoulder there. He shows expertise in seconds that’s taken a lifetime to learn.”
The similarities with rugby’s arch poachers are clear, as attackers attempt to outwit immensely well-drilled defences. “There is a lot more attacking kicking in rugby these days. You often see wings coming off the flank, trying to flood different channels. Having relationships with different players and being able to read them is a big part of my game. As a former backrow, I believe you can convert to having a try-scoring instinct. It’s not something you have to be born with.”
Murley switched to the backline at 16 while playing at Salisbury, eventually playing at outside-centre in the Harlequins Academy before finally settling on the wing in his second year. He says his position is continually evolving. “I’ve spoken about Marcus before, but it’s those little tells that different individuals have. For instance, I know how Andre (Esterhuizen) carries and I know how Dommers likes to offload. Then there’s Danny (Care). I think he’s probably assisted most of my tries. It’s knowing when he’s going to kick it or give those little pop passes.”
With his conditioning, Murley is at an age where he knows his own body and what weight gives him the best blend of jet-heeled pace and power to ride through tackles. “Some of the forwards are slugging six or seven meals in every day to put on weight but I don’t need that. I got up to 104kgs at one point but I felt terrible. I couldn’t perform. A lot of the game is kick-chase and repeated sprints, so I need to be lighter.”
Murley had a peripatetic childhood growing up. Born in Frimley, as an infant he was spirited to Paderborn, Germany on an army base where his father a Major in the Royal Mechanical Electrical Engineers was posted. There followed a stint in Bodmin, Cornwall, and then a more prolonged period in Salisbury. Asked for the biggest influence on his life, his father, Jon, a former Harlequins backrow, ranks highly.
“If you speak to any of my friends, they will say I’m pretty disciplined and focused and that definitely comes from my dad. When we lived in Cornwall, he’d have me up at the crack of dawn swimming in the sea, no matter what I’d done the night before. He’s one of those, ‘seize the morning’ types, and invariably up at 5.30am most days. He’d have me making my bed without fail and looking back I think he was trying to instil discipline in me. Now I’m a bit older, I understand what he was trying to do. At the time I was hating on him, but I get it now. Mind you, I’ve rebelled on making my bed!”
As for his mother, her influence as a carer and nurturer has been equally profound. “Mum followed dad around as an army wife. I’d say she’s too kind and too caring because she wants to help everyone, but when we were out in Germany, dad was posted out to Iraq for 6-9 months almost immediately. She had no idea how long he’d be out there. So there she was; in a foreign country, with two little kids, on an army base where she didn’t know a soul yet she rolled up her sleeves and coped. By the time he returned, she’d made friends with everyone, which shows what sort of person she is. She raised me and my sister single-handedly at times, so I can’t thank her enough.”
Murley Snr also served in Afghanistan but prefers not to dwell on his time with the British Army, preferring to keep his experiences to himself. “There are two types of parents in the army. Those who are desperate for you to follow them into it, and those desperate for you to stay out of it. For him, a young boy from Cornwall, he wanted to go out and explore the world, to see bigger and better things, but now I think he’s quite happy I’m running around a rugby field rather than getting active service.”
Even so, with the pressure and instability of the professional game, there are myriad stresses involved in pro rugby with many players are asking for help on the mental health side. Murley says he has benefitted from a psychologist in camp. “We’ve had a few group sessions and I’ve loved it. I find the brain so fascinating.”
A voracious reader, he is never far from a book. “I need to be reading for a reason – to learn stuff. I’ve never had much of an imagination, but I do like psychology books, like, ‘The Chimp Paradox’, ‘Atomic Habits’, or more recently, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. If he’s not reading, downtime is spent bingeing on Netflix, or his current favourite, Yellowstone, on Paramount. The winter is for gaming on the staple FIFA or Call of Duty games.
Unsurprisingly, there is a growing expectation from his parents that his life post-rugby is not shelved indefinitely. “My parents are on at me about upping my education. I’m not sure I want to do a full university degree, but I started doing a training course during lockdown and I’ve done my Level 2 coaching badges. I’ve been coaching down at Old Reigatians but I’m only 23, so there’s still time to figure out what I want to do next.”
Whether he makes the final cut, or not, rugby has and will always be a constant and he has vivid memories of his father shouting at the television during the 2007 Rugby World Cup and Mark Cueto’s, ‘foot in touch’. Not one for bold pronouncements, he instead sets yearly goals. “I don’t like to look too far ahead. For 2022-23, it was to get into an England squad and get my first England cap, so I will do whatever I can to achieve that.”
With the hours, days and weeks shortening to the World Cup, Murley is hopeful that he doesn’t get a tap on the shoulder, but whatever transpires, he hopes England can make a nation proud. “It would be incredible to make the squad and make my parents proud. It would feel like a repayment for all they’ve done for me but what I’ve found recently is the amount of kids the game inspires. I went back to Salisbury Rugby club recently and I had kids saying, ‘I play rugby because I want to be like you’. It makes you realise what impact you can have and the squad are the same. They’re desperate to succeed. There is a collective desire to win the World Cup. If we can build a bit of momentum and get to the semi-finals, anything can happen.”