Conor Murray has learnt a lot about life and death these past two months
‘In the huddle, we sang. It was chilling. We were mourning together, sharing our grief’
Munster players and staff sing ‘Stand Up and Fight’ on the pitch after beating Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile via Getty Images
“Death really opens your eyes,” Conor Murray says on an unusually sunny winter afternoon in Limerick. The Munster scrumhalf, who has been inspirational for his province and country this year, most notably when sparking Ireland to a momentous first victory over New Zealand in Chicago last month, is still marked by the death of his coach and mentor Anthony Foley.
Foley, or Axel as everyone calls him in Munster, suffered an acute pulmonary oedema and died in Paris on October 16th at the age of 42. He was helping Murray and his team-mates prepare for their opening European Champions Cup game against Racing 92 that Sunday afternoon.
As a boy Murray had worshipped Foley – the home-grown captain who lifted Munster’s first European Cup in 2006. Foley had also coached Murray from the Under-20s to the first team over the past seven years. “When you lose someone,” Murray continues, “you go: ‘Let’s really take life for what it is and enjoy every day.’ After a while you forget and just go back to worrying about things. But Axel’s been dead more than two months and it’s still there for me. Little things don’t stress me anymore. It’s had a profound impact and you learn new things.
“I didn’t know much about his family life until I went to see [Foley’s wife] Olive and the kids. They have a beautiful home in Killaloe, overlooking the lake, with a wood at the back. Home was the most important thing. He used to ring Olive 15 times a day – which amazed me. I said: ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it because Axel would barely utter a word to you in the morning.”
Murray laughs as he remembers Foley’s grumpier moods. But he becomes thoughtful again. “Olive was amazing at the funeral – the way she spoke was presidential. But Axel was gone before he should have been. I know when it’s your time, it’s your time. But . . . ”
The 27-year-old shakes his head. “When death happens you can usually process it. But with Axel I feel he should be here. For a couple of weeks there was so much attention on his death, and an outpouring of sympathy. It was beautiful. But now everyone is carrying on – which is strange but natural. Axel would want us to carry on. He continues to inspire us.”
Murray talks with moving simplicity as he describes the day Foley died in Paris. “We woke up, had breakfast and at 11 o’clock we had our lineout walkthrough with the forwards. Axel is usually at that but there was no sign of him. The lads thought he’d slept in or forgotten the time-difference. Back at the hotel, before the pre-match meal, people were scurrying around. I remember seeing our physio holding the lift with his leg and saying: ‘The green bag, the green bag . . .’ It was his medical bag. Someone handed it to him and the lift went up.
“People started asking: ‘Where’s Axel?’ I said: ‘Man, I have a bad feeling here.’ An ambulance pulled up outside our hotel but they didn’t seem in a rush and that made it even more worrying.
“Rassie Erasmus [Munster’s new director of rugby who took over once, this season, Foley moved back down to being a coach] called us in. He was emotional and said: ‘Axel’s sick. I don’t know what’s happening yet.’
“Twenty minutes later Niall O’Donovan [the team manager] came down and just said it: ‘Axel passed.’ Some people cried. Some people walked out. It was surreal and chilling. I sat there and said: ‘Oh my God.’ I couldn’t believe it so I rang my dad. He was at the ground and they were all having beers. He could see other people finding out as news trickled through the crowd. The mood changed completely.
“We had six hours to wait for our flight so we went to a cafe and had a pint for Axel. What else do you do? He had just died but we ended up laughing about things he did, which is natural. But Axel had been a big part of my life for seven years.”
I check that Murray is comfortable talking about Foley – because it is obvious how much the Munster icon meant to their current star. “It’s okay,” Murray says, ignoring his lunch. “It was only later in the week that it really hit me. The game against Glasgow, six days later, was when his two boys, Tony and Dan, joined the team in the huddle on the pitch. That was the moment I couldn’t stop myself crying. Really. The funeral had been the day before and, in the huddle, we sang [Stand Up and Fight]. It was chilling. I can feel it on my neck now. The crowd went silent and listened. You could feel how close everyone was in that moment. We were mourning together, sharing our grief and supporting each other. It was incredible – far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.”
‘A big moment’
Another tribute to Foley, who played at number eight, carried almost as much resonance two weeks later in Chicago. Preparing to face the All Blacks’s haka, the Ireland players formed a figure of eight at Soldier Field. “It was a big moment,” Murray murmurs. “At first the crowd didn’t know what it was but, slowly, you could hear recognition spreading through them. Jonny Sexton and Joe Schmidt had said: ‘Let’s get the Munster lads at the front of the connection.’ I was at one front with CJ Stander [Munster’s number eight] at the other. I didn’t have anyone around me and I was looking at the haka and going: ‘Aaargh! You’re on your own here.’ But you could sense the crowd feeling it. It gave us a big lift right just before we went out and laid it all on the line. It pushed us even further.”
Murray played with imperious brilliance all afternoon – producing arguably his finest game. “Yeah, yeah,” he grins. “A good game for me is when you do all your basics really well and then have three or four standout moments when you express yourself and do something good. That afternoon things went really well.
“It was roasting. A beautiful day. The sun was out. Amazing. Not a puff of wind. In a way it could scare you because you knew the All Blacks would love that too. But we have confidence in our team. We played really well and put them under pressure. One thing against the All Blacks – and it’s way easier said than done – you’ve got to keep attacking them. Keep going at them.
“In 2013 we had an unbelievable lead against them [19-0 in Dublin] and at half-time we were saying: ‘Oh my God let’s just blow [the final whistle] now and enjoy it.’ We took our foot off the gas. They ground their way back into it and beat us because we stopped going after them. But in Chicago, at half-time, we said we have to keep going after them. We did. We kept attacking them.”
Ireland were cruising at 30-8 before, in just six minutes, New Zealand scored 14 points. Murray shudders with comic effect. “Oh God. Psychologically that was hard. We were thinking: ‘We’ve worked incredibly hard and we’re so tired now. But very good sides stretch you and you get tired and that’s when you make bad decisions. There was big pressure. So to come back and score a few more points and another try was brilliant. When Robbie [Henshaw] scored his try it took us beyond seven points.”
Murray is beaming now. “In that corner you could tell we were in an American football stadium. There was a wall and fans were up high and shouting down at us. The noise was deafening. I remember running back with Rob and he was shouting: ‘Keep your head switched on!’ I said: ‘Man, that’s it. It’s the 78th minute. They’re not going to score a try, convert it and score again.’ He was like: ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ We knew then we’d have a good night. I had my dad and mates over from Ireland and New York and loads of cousins. It almost felt local. Normally you’re just so tired you don’t feel like celebrating – but we did that night.”
Ireland lost to New Zealand two weeks later in Dublin – but it was a ferocious contest in which the home team dominated territory and possession. “Personally, with Beauden Barrett’s try, I slipped off a tackle and he scored,” Murray says. “I was like: ‘Oh my God!’ as it happened early on. I’ve got better at putting a mistake to one side and I was pretty happy with the rest of the game. We showed real heart, real toughness to stick with our gameplan – even when we went two scores down. I was properly proud of the team. A lot was made of the high tackles – but we stood up and gave it to them. That game showed that even if we get ruffled around we’re a tough team and we back each other. We learnt a lot about ourselves.”
Murray has also learned a lot about life and death these past two months. It means he can chat about the prospect of playing New Zealand again in six months – as a likely key member of the Lions – with a light touch. “The Lions are amazing. I do want to go and I am trying hard to go. I had a good laugh with Ben Youngs [England’s scrumhalf who is Murray’s main rival for the shirt in the Lions Test team] after we played Leicester up here [when Munster and Murray were dominant in a 38-0 European win almost two weeks ago].
“I’d had questions about it all week and Ben had also done media and he was asked about me. We said to each other: ‘We have so much time to f**k this up!’ [Murray laughs]. It’s a long way away. But I’m happy with the start I’ve made – but so is Ben. Even guys here are talking about it and I don’t want to hear. Just keep doing your thing and what will be will be. But it will be an amazing tour to go on.”
Our interview lasts for an hour and, because it feels so easy, we chat for another 20 minutes. Murray tells me about great cities and restaurants he loves and how he flew back his younger sister Aisling from Sydney last Thursday – so they could surprise their parents and big sister Sarah at Christmas. “Dad’s really missed Aisling – she’s definitely the favourite child,” Murray chuckles.
He remembers being with his father on that emotional afternoon when Munster, led by Foley, won their first European Cup in Cardiff in 2006. Murray had just turned 17. “When Axel lifted the trophy it was a dream. I remember it was the first proper hug I’d had from Dad – ever. Even that moment alone was quite famous for me. That’s why it’s so exciting right now. There is potential – and I emphasise that word – we could also do something special this season.”
Murray smiles gently when asked how he would feel if Munster, somehow, did it again for Axel. “Oh . . . if we won it this season we’d probably not really celebrate. We’d cry a little bit. I get tingles just thinking about it.”