Conor Murray's new three-year deal to remain with Munster and Ireland swiftly dispels notions of him moving abroad any time soon or that his mysterious absence could be long-term. Instead, it cements his status as Irish rugby's most valuable player and in giving a clear indication into the esteem in which he is held by the IRFU, Joe Schmidt and Munster, the new deal strongly suggests he'll be back playing before too long.
Munster, Ireland and the Lions' first-choice scrumhalf was already amongst the best paid players on the IRFU payroll, alongside Johnny Sexton, and, at 29 and as Ireland's best nine ever, his new deal may well have pushed him out on his own.
This probably equates to a basic salary (and yesterday’s statement by the IRFU made it clear this was “wholly funded” by them) in the region €2million over three years, albeit with appearances and win bonuses set to increase that in what will be an incentivised contract.
Murray could assuredly have cashed in on his status as Europe’s and possibly the world’s best scrumhalf after the World Cup with a basic salary of around €800,000 per annum abroad, and specifically in the Top 14. Against that though, aside from continuing to play for his native province and his country, Murray would have weighed a more financially remunerative contract elsewhere against a player management system in Ireland which offers the greater possibility of him extending his career here.
Recent excursions to Paris to catch up with his close friend and former Munster and Ireland teammate Simon Zebo, while taking in Racing 92 matches, would have fuelled rumours, and fears, of him following suit to the French capital. But no less than Zebo, Murray is his own man as well.
Murray already has 67 caps for Ireland and pending his return and prospective luck with injuries, his decision to remain in Ireland offers the distinct possibility that he could overtake Peter Stringer’s haul of 98 caps and become the first Irish scrumhalf to pass the 100 mark.
He brings the complete package nowadays, be it an accurate service off the base, his renowned kicking game, strong running game (a dozen tries for Ireland and 13 at Test level) and defensive game, and he invariably makes the right decision and executes in broken play.
Aside from his all-round footballing ability and physicality, as striking as any feature of Murray’s all-round game since he broke into the Munster team on their run-in to their 2010-11 Celtic League title has been his big-match temperament. This was re-enforced by his Test debut off the bench in a World Cup warm-up match against France in Bordeaux in August 2011, and having broken into Ireland’s World Cup squad ahead of Tomás O’Leary and Stringer, he effectively returned from New Zealand as Ireland’s first-choice.
Murray’s career has been on a steady and consistently upward graph ever since. He went out as the Lions’ third-choice scrumhalf in 2013, and had there been a fourth Test would probably have started it. Last year he was most people’s idea of the Lions first-choice scrumhalf, and he played a key role in the comeback drawn series against the All Blacks, taking his critical try in the second Test win in Wellington.
A product of St Munchin’s, Garryowen and a full three-year cycle in the Munster academy, there have been 116 performances for Munster as well, but despite all manner of near misses, no trophies to add to that 2011 League title. He clearly wants to put that to rights.
This development also constitutes good business by the IRFU, and cuts short any speculation over Murray’s future before it really gathers momentum. Indeed, after recent speculation, in yesterday’s statement the Union could not resist revealing that Murray “signed an IRFU contract extension in early September which will see him play his rugby in Ireland up to at least the end of June 2022.”
IRFU performance director David Nucifora was quoted as saying: "Conor is a genuinely world class player and he has illustrated this through the consistent quality of the performances he delivers for both Ireland and Munster. He has played a central role in driving the success that has been achieved at national level, and we are delighted that he will continue to play his rugby in Ireland for at least the next three seasons."
In the IRFU statement, Murray said: “I am delighted to have signed on with the IRFU until at least 2022. Over the past few seasons I’ve enjoyed great days in the green of Ireland and the red of my home province Munster. I love playing here and look forward to making more life long memories in the next few years.”
Murray has been sidelined since the comeback series win in Australia last June with an unspecified problem which is believed to be a neck injury.
However, he has been training with Munster and speaking of his current setback he said: “There’s a lot said about it. I’m back on the pitch, I’m training with the lads, so hopefully sooner rather than later I’ll be able to put on the jersey again.”
In any event, that at least looks all the likelier now, and for three more years to come too.