Conor Murray ready to fuel Ireland’s fire at World Cup
Munster scrumhalf is in prime of career four years after making dramatic breakthrough
Conor Murray is confident going into his second World Cup. “We are in a very good place and I don’t think we should be shying away from that,” he says. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
This time four years ago it’s still remarkable to think that Conor Murray went into Ireland’s World Cup preparatory programme as fifth choice scrumhalf. Yet, typical of the steady upward graph of his career, he ended the tournament as first choice. Along with breaking into the Lions Test squad, he has since become one of Ireland’s key players.
Last time he made the cut ahead of Peter Stringer and Tomás O’Leary, along with Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss. Now four years older at 26, he goes into today’s game as Ireland’s established half-back partner to Johnny Sexton with 35 caps to his name.
“I met our former media manager, Karl Richardson, at the side of the pitch today and I was just laughing with him,” Murray told The Irish Times during the week at the squad’s Carton House base. “This time four years ago I was in a room here, I hadn’t done much media and he was bringing me through worst-case questions, coaching me in how to answer those tricky questions. How time has flown.”
Murray had only broken into the Munster team at the tail end of the 2010-11 season, but drew confidence from being their number nine for the Magners League run-in and title success, and from Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara telling him to Test rugby might not be such a quantum leap. Even so, arriving in Carton House in the 2011 pre-season was a step into the unknown.
“I remember the first drive up here, looking at the golf course, and then all the lads, like say Rob [Kearney] who I know well now, but at the time I admit I found an environment like that very daunting. Four years later, I feel a good deal more settled and comfortable around everybody.”
As an uncapped scrumhalf up against four relatively seasoned internationals, you wonder if Murray himself realistically thought he could make the 30-man squad?
“It was all step-by-step, new experience followed by new experience. Getting into camp, getting your first set of Irish gear – little things like that – and then training, getting through that as well as you can. I went over to Scotland for the first game as 24th man, just to do the warm-up. I was like ‘wow, this is what an international game-day feels like. This is brilliant. Jeez, I’d love to experience this again.
“At Edinburgh airport Deccie [Kidney] said to me ‘you’re not playing with Munster next weekend.’ That gave me a hint I might be involved [against France in Bordeaux a week later], and I went up to Mick O’Driscoll, and told him what Deccie had said. ‘You’ll be playing next week so,’ he said, and I came off the bench the next week for my first cap. Then I felt ‘oh jeez, could this be a possibility?’ You need to play to think this could be a possibility.”
Sure enough, Murray went to New Zealand. “I had a blast. It was just brilliant, on and off the pitch, and that’s what excites me now. Back then it was all new, new emotions after every new experience. Now I have an idea what a World Cup could be like.”
After his first start in the opening pool win over the USA in New Plymouth, Murray made a strong contribution off the bench for the last quarter in the historic win over Australia in Eden Park, as well as the 36-6 win over Italy in Dunedin.
“Coming on against Australia I’d never been so nervous in my life. We were winning and I was thinking ‘this is brilliant. Hopefully I’ll come on in the last minute or whatever’. But I think it was 59 minutes when I got the tap on the shoulder. ‘Okay, here we go.’ It was one of those big pressure moments and I was happy with how I dealt with it; just passes and kicks, which are your bread and butter, and slot into an occasion like that relatively seamlessly, not disrupt the team.”
He had a disallowed try too. “Yeah, the camera could see my bad language. But that reaction showed how much it would have meant to me to score there.”
His mother, Barbara, and older sister, Sarah, had just arrived the day of that game. “Meeting them after the game was kind of surreal, after beating Australia. Only in the days that followed did you realise how big a win it was.”
The Italian job under the glassed roof of Stadium Dunedin was as good an atmosphere as he’s ever experienced. The 30,000 crowd was awash in green.
“It was like a football home match. Those ‘ole, ole’ chants still ring in my ear. It didn’t stop all throughout the game. I loved it.”
Alas, then came the crushing disappointment of the quarter-final defeat to today’s opponents.
“Yeah, looking back now, it shows how hard it will be to get to a semi-final. We probably went into that as slight favourites. It goes back to any interview with any [Irish] player involved in that game – what was our plan B? We didn’t really know how to deal with their line speed, and they just kept shutting us down, and we kept trying to force the play, and ended up not looking good; slow and just a one-out pass team. That day didn’t reflect well on us at all.”
In another flip from four years ago, last season ended on a sour note for Murray, when he injured his leg early in the Pro12 semi-final and missed the final. Having his leg in a brace limited his holidays abroad to a week in Portugal and a weekend with his family in Kerry, although he has availed of the weekends off with plenty of golf in Lahinch.
Not involved in either of the first two games, he’s been concentrating on speed work and fitness, while others were preparing for games. Like others today, he is bound to be a little rusty, but after an eight week pre-season he has never been physically fitter. “We made our gains that Jayo [strength and conditioning coach Jason Cowman] set for us and feeling fit. I just need to play a game to see exactly where I am but we’re hitting the targets that were set, so we should be in a good place.”
Four years on, he’s also more experienced, more rounded, more accurate. “I don’t think I should hide from that. I think I’ve made good improvements in my game in the last four years. Back then, you’re essentially playing as you’ve always played.
“Over the last four years, particularly since Joe has come in – but also Deccie was a huge help to me in helping me understand the game, and Rob Penney and Tony McGahan and Axel Foley – each has picked out areas that I needed to work on, and I’ve worked on them and seen them come through in games, which has been very encouraging.”
Murray singles out his decision-making as a key area of improvement, specifically kicking when not only he but team-mates are ready. He’s also more accurate in his kicking, and thus giving his chasers a better chance to contest for the ball.
Another addition to his game is try-scoring. There have been 13 for Munster and three for Ireland in the intervening years, culminating in a seasonal high of seven last season for province and country.
“So I’ve made some improvements but still room for more.”
“Decision-making at times still involves taking steps at times. Working with Greg Oliver since I was in the Munster academy, I’d get excited about a 30- or 45-minute passing session with him. I love passing. I’ve always carried a ball around with me. I know I can whip a pass from the ground or take a few steps. Rob helped me understand when I don’t need to take steps, when I just need to get it to 10. It’s the same with Joe, the two of them in particular gave me an overview of when I’m not attacking or fixing the fringe [defence], just to concentrate on a really crisp pass.”
Half-back partnerships require time. That USA full debut in the last World Cup was his first start with Sexton, since when there have been another 23, and after winning only four of the first 12, they have been on the winning side in 10 of the last 12.
“I think I know Johnny as a person better which helps in dealing with each other on the training pitch and in the heat of battle. I think that’s huge. It does take time, understanding each other, watching each other train, along with the other 10s, Mads, Paddy and Keats. But I’ve spent most of the time with Johnny and I just want to keep improving that. In training this week I could sense we had something to fall back on.”
Until four years ago, World Cup winning sides invariably had an established half-back pairing; David Kirk and Grant Fox, Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh, Joost van der Westhuizen and Joel Stransky, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, Matt Dawson and Jonny Wilkinson, and Furie du Preez and Butch James.
The first to really catch the eye of the then 14-year-old Murray was Matt Dawson. “Especially his involvement in the last play,” says Murray of Dawson’s snipe which brought Wilkinson’s drop goal into play, “which was unbelievably crucial and which people forget about. Yeah, I’m fully aware of all those people and that excites me as well. It’s a challenge, it’s an exciting time of your career, and you want to mark it with good performances.”
The confidence derived from winning a group for the first time ever ought to be enhanced by back-to-back Six Nations titles.
“We go into the World Cup in a very good place and I don’t think we should be shying away from that. Leading up to a game we can say ‘if we play well, we should win this game’. That’s not being cocky or arrogant. We have that body of work.
“We know we’ve been through some really tough games against the southern hemisphere teams, and those tight Six Nations games, where we know we’ve been to the well with each other and had to dig in deep for each other and we know we can come out the other side with a victory. That’s something we can draw on before we go into big games.”
“There’s still another body of work to go through before we even get to those games at the end of the pool. It’s very important that we get game-time together and we’re buzzing as the tournament goes on, which we know we can. It’s just about getting down to doing it really.”
Starting, for Murray, today.