Conor Murray: Offering more than fringe benefits

Ireland scrumhalf’s influence grows with every season as he eyes strong Six Nations finish

Conor Murray is Ireland’s only try scorer in this season’s Six Nations, and has crossed the whitewash six times overall in his 45 international Tests. Photograph:  Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Conor Murray is Ireland’s only try scorer in this season’s Six Nations, and has crossed the whitewash six times overall in his 45 international Tests. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

 

Try telling Conor Murray that today’s game is something of a dead rubber or at any rate has lost its lustre. That number nine jersey is something he dreamed of wearing as a kid, and far from assuming he’s taken ownership of it, he cherishes each time he wears it as much as the first.

Yes, it’s been a disappointing season for province as well as country, and as an increasingly more influential player who contributed handsomely to back-to-back titles, he feels it as much as anyone. He visualises watching the England-Wales game and admits it will hurt.

“It hasn’t gone to plan but at the same time it’s quite exciting. Just take this weekend. It’s a Six Nations game at home, in a packed out Aviva. You’re playing for your country. Your family are coming up. It’s a great occasion.”

“There’s never going to be a day when you go out into the Aviva moping and feeling ‘let’s just get through this’. It’s an international and all your family and friends and the supporters are still going to go to the game.

“They’re proud of you and you never know how many caps you’re going to get. The more times I’ve done it, the more times I value it and cherish it every time my name is called out, and it’s no different this weekend.”

This sense of privilege will have increased another notch last night. “The night before the game you go into John Moran’s room – it used to be Rala’s [Paddy O’Reilly] – and the match jerseys are in his room. Your jersey is embroidered with your name,” he says, pointing to a location on the lower left front of his jersey “and who you’re playing and your cap number.

Fireworks

“You think yourself lucky, and that’s cool, and then the day of the game you run out to the fireworks and all that, but then you line up for the anthems, you look to the President’s box and the families will be standing to the left of that. You look up to them and that moment means an awful lot to me.”

He will reflect on what it took to get here, from under-9s mini rugby with Garryowen in Dooradoyle, to those days growing up watching Six Nations games on television at home or travelling up to Lansdowne Road and daring to dream. “Then it hits home, that you’re doing something that not many people get to do. It’s nice to think of the journey that it’s taken you on.”

Others had more publicised contractual sagas, being linked with clubs in France or England, but Murray made plain his desire to remain in Ireland with Munster, and duly signed a new three-year deal.

“The ‘wholesome approach,’ as someone said to me,” Murray reveals with a smile. “I was being honest. Other lads’ situations are different. I knew I wanted to stay. I felt I would be well looked after. It did drag on a little, it’s a business at the end of the day, but I was very happy to stay. That’s what I said all along and it wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t a tactical approach. I’m 26 now, and I’ll be 29 at the end of the next contract. I’ve still plenty of time to do what I want, whether I stay or go then.

“I hope the future is bright in Munster. We’ve a few things to sort out, but I see enough there for me to want to stay. Munster are in a race to qualify for the European Champions Cup next season and the Challenge Cup is non-negotiable for anyone. That would be a huge failing when you think of the European nights in Thomond. And then playing with Ireland is the ultimate.

“I want to do it for as long as possible, and we’re very well looked after, and the lifestyle here is great and I don’t see any reason to move.”

There’s no telling how much more Murray can achieve. Ireland’s first Lions scrumhalf since 1980, Murray is already Ireland’s second most capped player in that position, making 45 Test appearances for his country in his first five years on the international stage. Today will mark his 23rd Six Nations game in a row.

Awareness and strength

Murray’s importance to this team has been underlined by him using his awareness and strength close to the line with dummies to finish sharply against Wales and England.

So, what’s it like being Ireland’s only try scorer to date in the tournament? “Yeah, I don’t know whether it’s concerning or enjoyable,” he jokes.

Reflecting on the dozen unrewarded line breaks against Wales and England, he says this would be a good week to rectify this failing as the Italians are particularly adept at re-grouping behind the ball. “If you don’t get support to that player and drive home those opportunities, the longer you have the ball against Italy the more of a liability it can become.”

Murray’s six Test tries eclipses Michael Bradley’s tally of five in 40 Tests, and equals Peter Stringer’s haul in 98 Tests. Murray’s finishing, along with his brilliant covering and defensive work (he also saved two tries against England), has become an increasingly important part of Ireland’s game. It’s as much mental as technical, he explains, as well as having the confidence to do it. “When I was younger there were probably opportunities for me but I didn’t take them because I didn’t have the confidence to do it.”

A scrumhalf is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. If he goes for it and doesn’t score, he stands accused of white-line fever. But even when it doesn’t lead to a break or a try, it can help keep the fringe defence honest. At the very least, the ball has to be recycled, which it generally is off Murray. As well as self-belief and ‘visualisation’, that he has upped his strike rate has been down to scanning the fringes before arriving at the base.

“It’s a heads-up thing as well and something I worked on with Greg Oliver,” says Murray, in reference to his long-time tutor who is now the elite player development officer in the Munster academy. “Just having your head up going to a ruck. If you know the ball is going to be ready for you, you can have a little scan and you know they’re quite compact and there won’t be space for having a show and go, so you just concentrate on getting it away as quickly as possible.

“It’s also having a sense of when the defence might push off. It’s a feel thing. Sometimes you might get it wrong. Plenty of times I get it wrong. You can’t get it right every time.”

Murray says his tries, along with the line breaks and the space located when attacking England out wide, are evidence of how “Joe backs us to make decisions and play what we see”.

Further evidence of Murray’s value is that he has completed 80 minutes 10 times in the last three seasons. That would have been 11 but for a stray boot, or two, or indeed three, by Mike Brown. He had eight stitches, and shows you the point where he received two of them below his left eye.

“It’s the last bit of skin there,” he says, meaning next to his left eye socket. “The blood actually filled my eye. I couldn’t see out of it. I panicked a little at the time but I probably got more upset about it later on in the week because at the time the adrenalin was pumping and I wanted to come back on.

Relaunched his career

“I used to play with Ian McKinley, at [Ireland] under-18s, 19s and 20s,” says Murray of his former half-back partner, who has remarkably relaunched his career in Italy after losing his sight in one eye.

“He was coming through the Leinster academy and he and Mads [Ian Madigan] were neck and neck with each other, and I saw the way it affected his life. It’s been phenomenal the way he has come back, but at the same time if he hadn’t lost his sight in one eye where would he be now? That’s in the back of my mind always. It’s why I detest eye-gouging. I think it’s worse than spitting in someone’s face.”

He doesn’t believe Brown was acting maliciously. “I was holding the ball near my chest,” Murray says. “But was it a bit reckless use of the boot? Maybe. But kicking through a ruck is within the laws of the game and it’s a tactic we would use. I was one piece of skin away from it being in the eye. Maybe it is something for them [World Rugby] to address, and be refereed out of the game.”

If Murray needed any reminder of his sense of privilege to wear that Ireland number nine jersey today, Twickenham can only have enforced that feeling. He looks to today’s game again and talks of extending Ireland’s unbeaten home run over three seasons in the Six Nations.

“Starting this weekend, if we put a performance in with the new faces and tighten up those few areas we have been getting wrong, I think people on the outside will have a different view of this team.”

Bring it on. Ireland’s number nine genuinely can’t wait.

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