Fitness sessions, meditation and the odd Peroni: Conor Murray’s lockdown routine
Ireland scrumhalf is missing training with the lads and eyes fourth World Cup campaign
Ireland’s Conor Murray in action against Scotland in the Six Nations Championship in February. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Conor Murray has just been speaking on FaceTime for the best part of an hour from his attic, or his “lair” as he calls it. There’s a big screen at one end, and the walls are decorated with some of his rugby memorabilia, which includes two framed jerseys behind him.
To the left is a picture of the three Lions’ scrumhalves from that tour – himself, Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs – which adorns one speaker, while over the other speaker is a picture of the four Munstermen on tour, with a suited Paul O’Connell and Simon Zebo, and Dr Éanna Falvey.
What I miss most is going in training with the lads. Obviously there’s the competitive games, the atmosphere and all of that, but it’s the day-to-day
“Paulie was injured, Zeebs wasn’t picked – I make sure to remind him of that – and Éanna,” says Murray. “I wanted a room for my rugby stuff, but I didn’t want it downstairs, so it’s up here. Nice memories.”
Confined to barracks Murray may be, but like all rugby players during this coronavirus pandemic, Murray fully appreciates how fortunate he is.
“You hear a story of someone who’s had it, or you hear of what’s going on in the nursing homes and think how frightening that must be, all we have to do is stay at home and exercise outside.
“I do miss rugby. What I miss most is going in training with the lads. Obviously there’s the competitive games, the atmosphere and all of that, but it’s the day-to-day. Still, we have a routine, the daily training programme. I’ve a decent set-up in the garden.”
Murray and his girlfriend, Joanna, go to the nearby park where she does laps while he does fitness sessions, before she facilitates his skills drills by kicking rugby balls back to him.
“Getting my fitness work done releases those endorphins and gets you in a good mindset and then you fill your day with stuff outside of rugby.
“In the mornings I also do some meditation and mindfulness and a bit of breathing. I told Dave McHugh [his agent] about that book The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod and he’s sticking to it as well.”
Murray does allow himself some “cheat time” too. Monday and Tuesday are hard training days, so last Tuesday night he had a couple of Peronis while playing golf on his PlayStation against near neighbour Chris Farrell.
The lockdown has also allowed him to indulge in his passion for cooking. Mike Tweedy, a chef based in Adare, has given him recipes, such as sourdough bread, as has his cousin, Danny Miller, who’s a head chef for the Munster food suppliers, Zest.
“Before the lockdown he dropped me down a lot of pizza flour and maybe on a Friday we’ll reward ourselves with a pizza which we cook on the Kamado Joe – the barbecue we have. You can make it into an oven so that’s getting lit nearly every second day. A good few of the Munster lads have a Kamado Joe so there’s a bit of competition going on.”
Ireland had never seemingly been so well primed for a World Cup as they were a year before the 2019 tournament and that made it all the more disappointing for him and them
Although he loves cooking, Murray doesn’t envisage himself becoming a chef or starting a restaurant, but could see himself involved in the food industry. He’s also doing jobs around the house. Whatever it is, he’s keeping busy all day, every day. “Joanna says she’s never seen me so busy. That’s just the way I need to be.”
Murray believes the return of sport, including rugby, will be happily embraced, not least as the public will want sport as much as the participants.
“That’s something I’m clinging to, that people will need sport. We obviously want and need to play, but there’s a greater need out there that goes beyond just having rugby matches.”
Not that a break mightn’t be beneficial. This is Murray’s tenth season running as the first-choice scrumhalf for Munster, Ireland and, three years ago, the Lions. So this “time out” is a rare opportunity to both reflect and reboot.
Murray is no fool and he’s well aware of the sharper criticism in the last year or so from pundits. He says a friend/sports analyst was so struck by it after four games of the 2019 Six Nations that he went through the scrumhalf’s performances in the 2018 Grand Slam and those of last year.
“He said: ‘You’re playing the exact same as you played bar when [Tito] Tibaldi ripped the ball off you and ran halfway up the pitch. That was the only major difference. There were mistakes, there were good bits. You scored two tries in the Grand Slam year, you scored two tries this year. You’re kicking is similar. You kicked two penalties last year, you’ve kicked three conversions this year. You’re playing to a good standard. I don’t get it.’
“I can see the real picture and some of the media cannot but they get a voice, which frustrated me. Now I’m not saying I was at my best, and that the team was too, but it’s a very different picture than what’s painted.”
Ireland had never seemingly been so well primed for a World Cup as they were a year before the 2019 tournament, which was Murray’s third, and that made it all the more disappointing for him and them.
It’s still hard to explain where it went wrong.
“I’ve heard other people say our game plan didn’t evolve, which I think is complete bollocks. We didn’t execute the game plan. We made mistakes. We made handling errors. We messed up line-outs and scrums.
“My overall opinion of the World Cup was that our game plan was class. Maybe people figured out the aerial contesting, but our phase play, our set-piece attack, our defence and our breakdown were all really good. We just made mistakes in that game plan, particularly against Japan and New Zealand. People didn’t see the game plan because we made mistakes.”
As to why there were those mistakes, he admits maybe a hint of complacency crept in, or that mentally they weren’t quite where they’d been in 2018.
“Like, were we as hungry for the opening game in the 2019 Six Nations against England as we were going over to play them in the Grand Slam decider the year before? I’d probably say I was and we were collectively, but because we were Grand Slam champions did that take even half a per cent or 1 per cent off us? Maybe there was a little bit of that.”
Murray is also not deaf. When he extends and plants his left leg in readying himself for another box kick, he can hear the groans.
“I’d love to have a microphone on me in the stadium,” he says with a weary smile, “then just pause the whole game and explain: ‘I know this isn’t the flashiest tactic in the world, but this has to be done. If we keep the ball, maybe one or two times out of 10 we might go the length of the pitch but I’m telling you, especially in international rugby, look at how many times scrumhalves kick’.”
En route back from Japan, Murray stopped off in Dubai with some of the squad, and they watched the South Africa-Wales semi-final. Faf de Klerk box-kicked the leather off the ball that night, prompting a Springboks supporter to approach Murray and said: “Any chance you’d change nationalities and play ‘9’ for us?”
“I said: ‘What?’ He said ‘Faf is kicking the ball way too much’.” Itching to get it off his chest for once, Murray explained the rationale. He’s played under Rassie Erasmus as well so even when 60 metres from the opposition line he knew de Klerk would opt for a box kick.
“That’s just the game plan, and they’re world champions now. If we had won the World Cup I don’t think people would be complaining.
“It annoys me sometimes because there is a rationale, based on factual evidence, behind it. Now if I kick a s**t one and it goes too long or straight in the air, then fine, blame me.”
His passing has also been in good working order this season, but all that said and done, Murray’s try-scoring ratio, which was modest from 2011 to 2014, and then peaked from 2014 to 2018, definitely dipped after he returned from his neck issues. Why so?
“I’ve thought about that and it’s something I worked on early in my career. When I first got into the Munster team I tried to facilitate, facilitate and probably didn’t go for it as much. Then after a while I decided ‘I want to get into try-scoring positions and I want to score tries.’ Through visualisation and working on it mentally, this transferred onto the pitch. It’s as clear as day.”
Citing those prolific years, Murray then admits: “That has slowed. Especially from close range, I stopped going for them. I think since I did my neck in the summer of 2018 when I hiccupped on holidays and that led to the disc slipping, was there something in my head which said ‘maybe pass it here’ because it was the easier option, instead of potentially hurting myself?”
Murray recently came across a replay of the 2015 World Cup pool decider against France in Cardiff and looked at the way he was approaching rucks and getting the ball away.
“I got my foot in early and had no fear, whereas I think when I started getting a bit of neck trouble I was a bit fearful of being counter-rucked and getting a stinger down the arm. That was a thought for a little while but hand on heart, since the start of this season, my neck has been the best it’s ever been, strength-wise, lifting the same weights in each arm, taking contact, feeling strong. So I think this is a mental adjustment I need to make.”
That apart, Murray has retained his belief in his own ability.
“I’ve enough confidantes to chat with, people whose opinion I really value. Rog is definitely one of them, and he is known for just giving it to you straight. If there’s something wrong with your game, he’ll tell you. If there’s waffle being told about you, he’ll tell you as well. He’s not trying to impress you or make you feel better.
“It was hard to ignore the hype for change and I spoke with a few lads in the squad. I know how good I am and I want to show that when I get back because it was hurtful, definitely, if more for your family and people who have believed in you. Some of it was warranted, but a lot of it snowballed.”
I’ve a set of goals and a plan on my vision board in my office, and there’s a lot to do. A lot to do
Murray turned 31 last week, but like others this enforced break could both revive and elongate his career.
Contracted until 2022, he believes both a third Lions tour next year and a fourth World Cup, at 34, are achievable.
“Johnny was 34 at the last World Cup, so absolutely. I’ve got those big goals and as they’ve been done before there’s no reason they can’t be done.”
“To go on one Lions tour is special and luckily enough I went on a second one, but if you’re at the age where you’re available for selection then that has to be a goal – 100 per cent.”
There’s also three World Cup quarter-final defeats, with each of the last two more painful than the one before, plus all the Irish goals in between, and Munster.
“We’ve a great coaching ticket at Munster and hopefully we’ll keep them together, because that’s been a problem in Munster. And we’ve a great squad with a couple of additions in Damian de Allende and RG Snyman to come. There can be great days to come with Munster too.
“I’ve a set of goals and a plan on my vision board in my office, and there’s a lot to do. A lot to do.”