Ageless Conor Murray not giving way in numbers game any time soon

Vastly experienced Munster and Ireland scrumhalf feels he still has plenty to contribute in a green shirt

Johnny Sexton set the bar at last year’s World Cup.

As captain, outhalf and one of the players the Irish team held as pivotal to success, he bucked the trend in a sport that is traditionally unkind to 38-year-old players. Conor Murray now also faces the disconcerting reality of being called a veteran player at 34.

Similar to Sexton’s attitude during the years since the 2019 World Cup, Murray feels a sense of place and ability that tells him he is not yet ready to walk away.

The Munster nine has no intentions of easing up on his competitive intensity, or of stepping aside for Craig Casey to allow a seamless succession. On the contrary, he is prepared to continue competing for the understudy position to Jamison Gibson-Park. Why not?


Give or take a few months, Murray has been playing international rugby for 13 years and for most of it as the first-choice Ireland scrumhalf alongside Sexton. He has ample experience in how to do it, how to manage himself and his game to meet the standards, stay fresh and be relevant among players 10 years younger.

More importantly Murray understands the difference between the mildly pejorative term of ‘veteran’ and the more wholesome phrase ‘experienced player’. One has the years slowing him down, the other contributing to the team in a way only accumulating years allow. Either way, it’s life catching up on living the dream.

Sexton made it work for him for so long and Murray takes his cue from that. He is not seeing a problem where none exists.

“Just trying to keep up with the young fellas really and trying to remain as consistent as possible,” he says. “We’re three or four deep in every position and anyone who steps in can absolutely perform and do a job, so it’s making sure you’re ready to take your chance if it arises.

“We’re all vying to play and competing to play and that doesn’t take anything away from your competitiveness as a senior player in the group. I think you just have a natural responsibility, club or country, of helping out younger lads or sharing your opinion on things on and off the pitch.”

It doesn’t mean Murray hasn’t thought about the turning years. As a body management issue he must do and he agrees that post-match stretching sessions are becoming longer. As Brian O’Driscoll pushed into his 30s and he lost a yard of pace, his outside centre role in the Irish team was realigned. He became more defensively minded and dovetailed with the team demands.

“Yeah, I suppose you have those conversations with yourself, away from the pitch,” says Murray.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the coaches whether they feel you’re still firing and able to play at that level. My body feels great and it was even good to go back to Munster last week and get a good bit of game time, match fitness and match sharpness.

“As long as I can play and as long as you’re wanted or fit enough to be selected and playing at that level . . . I’ll go until you’re told otherwise . . . as long as possible. That’s what you want as a professional and as someone who appreciates how special this group is and being involved with Ireland is, naturally you want to do it for as long as you can. And who knows how long you can.”

He is not the only ageless player under Andy Farrell’s regime with 36-year-old Cian Healy two years older than Murray. Players go with what their body tells them and beating Sexton’s record of being the oldest Irish player is not a subject he has put out there as a goal. Nor is he placing limitations on himself.

Sexton earned the ‘oldest’ accolade last summer following a six-month absence due to injury and suspension before slotting back in at outhalf to guide Ireland to an 82-8 bonus-point win over Romania in their World Cup opening match.

With that he overtook John Hayes’s record as Ireland’s oldest male international at 37 years and 277 days. Hayes’s mark stood since August 2011 until Sexton’s World Cup reset at 38 years and 58 days.

“I’d like to be just starting off my career with this group,” says Murray in his only hint at a sense of regret. “Being part of this journey is really exciting. As I said I’d like to be a few years younger and just be starting off. But [I’m] enjoying every minute.

“You’re at the twilight of your career I suppose so you cherish it even more, which makes you even more hungry to be involved with this group. From inside the group, I hope they can see where this team can hit and the levels we can get to. So yeah, it makes it that little bit more exciting and burns the fire a little bit more in you.”

The scrumhalf, who will be 35 in April, is currently on an IRFU central contract, which he agreed in December 2021. It expires after this summer’s tour to South Africa. But the gauntlet is down.

Sexton, the 38-year-old, who played the entire 80 minutes of his last match against New Zealand has shown Murray the numbers may define his time on earth, not his accomplishments in a green shirt.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times