Conor Murray praises ‘unique type of force’ of Johnny Sexton

The Munster and Leinster players have combined at halfback for Ireland on 68 occasions to date

Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray celebrate Dan Leavy’s try during the 2018 Six Nations game against Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Conor Murray has probably been better primed going into an autumn series. Whereas he started five games for Munster after the Lions tour in 2017 before the November window, this time he’s only had a 20-minute stint away to the Ospreys last Saturday week.

Yet there are advantages to playing just one game in 12 weeks too.

“I got a good break and I’m recharged and buzzing to be back in camp. I’ve been building nicely and feel fresh, especially mentally. I feel really excited about November and being involved.”

This is all the truer after a rollercoaster Lions tour, when briefly being installed as captain before going from sub, to starting 9 to sub again in the Test series, all while living in a bubble.


“It had every type of emotion throughout the eight weeks. It was interesting but I loved it overall, I genuinely loved the tour. A pity we couldn’t get the win, I thought we were definitely good enough to win the series, but it was a great eight weeks.

“It was difficult, it was really enjoyable, it was challenging, it was rewarding, it was tough at times, so like I said, it had every type of emotion.”

It would certainly be fitting if Murray was alongside Johnny Sexton for the captain’s 100th Irish Test against Japan this Saturday at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 1pm).

They first played together as replacements for the scoreless last quarter of the World Cup warm-up defeat at home by England in August 2011. Out of little acorns and all that.

Of Sexton’s 99 Irish caps, 90 have been as the starting 10, and of those 64 have been with Murray at 9, not to mention two Lions Test starts together. Only George Gregan and Stephen Larkham have started more at halfback (78) in the history of the game.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have been the Ireland halfback pairing on 68 occasions, second only to Stephen Larkham and George Gregan of Australia/ Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“Firstly, before I got to know Johnny personally, he was an incredible player,” Murray begins.

“What took me a while to get used to was Johnny’s body language. To people on the outside, when something doesn’t go right he can probably look like he’s giving out a lot or sulking, but after a few years of getting to know Johnny, it comes from such a good place.

“Realising where it comes from, how he means to take the team to the next level and get all the cogs of the wheel moving in the right direction – he takes an awful lot of responsibility for that and that’s a lot of pressure on him as well.

“Watching him grow since I started playing with him in 2011, and knowing him as a friend and a personality, he’s a great fella. Unbelievably competitive, loves any type of sport where there’s something to be lost or won.

“He’s had loads of challenges, loads of tough times, a couple of injuries to deal with, and his resilience is incredible. That’s one thing I would definitely try and emulate from him. Whether coming back from injuries, form, being questioned etc, he always comes out on top because he knows what’s important in this profession, and that’s the respect of your peers and performing yourself, letting the rest take care of itself and not really worrying about opinions of other people outside our group. I think he does that really, really well.”

Murray hopes there’ll be something approaching a full house on Saturday.

“He’s the type of player that deserves that. I think you’ll hear it when he runs out on Saturday, the crowd will show their appreciation for what he’s given to the game.”

Nothing’s changed either.

“He’s flying around the place, he looks fit and energetic and he’s loving rugby. It’s amazing to see the hunger he still has at this stage of his career.”

Of those 68 games together for Ireland, one stands out for Murray.

“I don’t know whether it’s a highlight, a lowlight or a massive learning situation, but the World Cup in New Zealand, 2011,” recalls Murray, already smiling at the memory.

“We played Italy in the last group game; ROG started, Johnny came on.

I suppose my journey in that World Cup was just enjoying the ride. I probably didn’t have the level of detail that Johnny was expecting from his 9 and I remember we got to the touchline, and he wanted me to play the pod of forwards.

“I ripped it out the back to him and he wasn’t expecting it. He launched a Garryowen of some sort and the names he called me while we were chasing that kick, it instilled in me really early that I need to be all over my detail and understand what he wants as a 9.

“We laugh about it now but genuinely it made me realise the level that is required to play international rugby and to be a good 9 to your 10 outside you.

“I’ll never repeat the words that he used,” he adds with a laugh. “But they hit home.”

Murray, who himself has played 97 Tests including eight for the Lions, pauses when asked if he has ever played alongside anyone quite like Sexton.

“He’s definitely a unique type of force,” says Murray, albeit he adds that every 10 is different.

“It’s quite unique how he guides a team around a pitch and that took a little bit of getting used to.

“He’s such a good rugby brain that he knows the level that’s required at the weekend and he’s trying to replicate that in training as much as he can.

“It comes from wanting to win, and sharing winning dressingrooms with Johnny when the pressure is released is incredible. You can just see how much it means to him. If he brings his kids into the dressingroom afterwards you know how much his family mean to him, and then winning for Ireland to make his family proud.”

“He wears his heart on his sleeve and it’s such a cool weekend for him. It’s going to be incredible, hopefully.”