Conor Murray revelling in the buzz of being a Lion

The 28-year-old says experience of Chicago can be drawn on but it’s a different game

Conor Murray during training at the QBE Stadium in Auckland. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

It is perhaps another measure of Conor Murray’s status in these 2017 British & Irish Lions that he was the player chosen to face the media glare today in Auckland on the eve of the first test against New Zealand in Eden Park (kick-off: 8.35am Irish, follow on our liveblog from 7.45am).

Aside from his importance to the team’s hopes of causing an upset win, it’s also a measure of his maturity and relaxed confidence in such surroundings.

As the estimated 20,000 Lions fans have increasingly descended upon Auckland in the last few days, so the sense of anticipation has been heightened.

“It’s getting real now,” said Murray. “It’s definitely getting real. When I first arrived here there were fans here and they were quite vocal but over the last week and especially here, you can just see the sheer volume of numbers arriving and the buzz is definitely there, and it feels proper now, so it’s really exciting.


With the travelling hordes, so too family and loved ones have travelled over in the last day or two as well. “My family arrived this morning and I just went out and met them for a coffee like I usually do. The ‘prep’ is done, you take a few moments over the next while and think about the game but you just try and switch off, relax and soak up the atmosphere.

“There’d be something wrong with you if you didn’t enjoy this, if you didn’t take it in. Just being out for a walk, there’s many more fans on the streets and the buzz is building nicely. You’ve got to bring it back to the enjoyment, this is a massive opportunity and honour and you’ve got to take it all in and enjoy it as much as you can.”

Although there were again plenty of references to Ireland’s win over the All Blacks last November, the World Champions’ only defeat in their last 22 matches, Murray is one of only two survivors from the Irish starting XV in Chicago, the other being Tadhg Furlong. Neither Peter O’Mahony nor Sean O’Brien were involved that day, although two more who were, Jack McGrath and Johnny Sexton, are also on the bench.

Murray on Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in Chicago: “It’s something you definitely take confidence from, it’s not the be all and end all, it was a long time ago”. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“It’s something you definitely take confidence from, it’s not the be all and end all, it was a long time ago,” said Murray in reference to the Chicago game. “But to show that it can be done is certainly something we can be proud of. We have looked at that game and certain things we did we will try and implement as well, but again it is a new group of players, it’s a completely different task but to know that it can be done is definitely something we are going to build off.”

There is also one abiding lesson to be learned from that 40-29 win.

“A lot happened in Chicago. One of the main things for me is that you’ve got to be confident and willing to play rugby against the All Blacks. I’ve learned in the past, in 2013 in Dublin, we got quite a good lead and then we probably panicked a bit and tried to maintain that lead and hold out.

“Whereas looking back on the Chicago game, you’ve got to keep playing, you’ve got to keep attacking and stay in the game – not go into your shell. That’s easier said than done and again that’s the challenge, to maintain that for 80 minutes. Decision-making, execution of game plan, all those things come into it too but for me the main thing to do is keep playing.”

But Murray also knows from the All Blacks’ ultra-physical revenge mission in the Aviva stadium a fortnight after Chicago, that he is liable to be targeted.

He hasn't tried to be a different person since he's been named captain. He's just gone about rugby the way he usually does

Asked how much his game management skills are going to be tested by the All Blacks, Murray acknowledged: “Massively, like any Test game, particularly against the best team in the world, it’s going to be huge, hugely important. I think we have a side that can manage a game quite well, we’ve got subs that can come on and steady the ship or continue in that style of play, that’s going to be crucial.

“The same if it becomes open, the coaches back us to play heads-up rugby as well. If we see opportunities and we want to go for them they’ll back us. We’ve got to be ready for any type of game against the All Blacks. They can throw anything at you and you’ve got to be able to adapt. We’ve trained well and hopefully we’ve covered our bases enough to put in a performance.”

Murray was outstanding in Chicago, and has been in prime form here, with his kicking game seemingly causing as much consternation within the home media as any other attribute the Lions might bring to the table. As one writer put: it’s as if he practices his box kicks into a basketball hoop.

When asked about his kicking game again yesterday, it drew a wry smile.

“Yeah, people seem to be talking about that quite a bit since we’ve been here. Yeah, the aerial battle is huge and we have a game plan and a structure to implement into the game and hopefully it will be effective on the weekend.

“If it’s going to be part of the game we’ve got really good wingers that will chase hard for you all day off the nine or 10. We’ve got Jonathan Davies who can kick off his left as well, so we’ve plenty of kicking options. You’ve got to kick well but you’ve got to have the chase right and everything around it has to work too. It’s not just one person.”

As Rob Howley, the former Wasps, Wales and Lions scrum-half who helped to further Murray’s game four years ago, also pointed out, the All Blacks kick the ball more than any other team, between 28 and 32 times per game.

Nor have the Lions lost out by having a resurgent, fit and in-form O’Brien and O’Mahony in the back-row. Of O’Brien, Howley said: “He’s a very motivational person. His performances on the field suggest he’s back to his best, he’s very powerful, dynamic; very strong.

“I know the New Zealand back-row hugely respect Sean O’Brien. When a back-row of that quality respects someone that says everything about the player himself. He leads by his actions and his words. He’s one of the few players who can.”

Regarding O’Mahony, his Munster teammate and captain, Murray said: “I’ve known Pete for years and years, and it’s really refreshing to see that it hasn’t changed him at all. He hasn’t tried to be a different person since he’s been named captain. He’s just gone about rugby the way he usually does. He’s a guy who, when he speaks, people listen to him. His messages are thought out and they’re clear. They have meaning behind them. He doesn’t talk all the time. He talks when it’s needed, and people respond to that.

Murray on O’Mahony: “It was always in him, he was always a leader”. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

“Then playing-wise, you’ve seen it for years. He’s a hard player, he will try his best to lead by what he does on the pitch and people are going to follow him.

“I’m delighted for him. I’m delighted for him and his family. It’s a massive thing for him, and I think he’s itching to get out there now and play for the Lions in a test game.”

Murray subscribes to the theory that O’Mahony was virtually born to lead.

“It was always in him, he was always a leader, he was always someone who if something wasn’t done right he’d want to put it right and he wouldn’t be happy until it was just knowing him as a person, when we all came into Munster with the likes of Paul O’Connell, O’Gara, all these guys, we have grown with them and probably taken a lot of experience off them, and learned an awful lot.

“For me, from a young age at underage sides where Pete captained me, he has been the same. Obviously, he has learned as time as gone on, as different experiences have come his way, he has developed his leadership skills because it has taken him to a whole new level now and the really pleasing thing from my point of view is that it hasn’t changed him and he hasn’t changed this week, he doesn’t seem more stressed, he has taken it in his stride, it has always been a dream of his to captain the Lions and you know the lads really respect him. He speaks and you can see lads listening and that is massive.”

A core of this match-day squad, 10 in all including Murray as a replacement, were involved in the third test win over Australia four years ago and Murray said they can draw “some confidence” from that game.

Nonetheless, taking on the All Blacks in Eden Park, where they haven’t lost since France won 23-20 in 1994, and have won 36 tests in a row there, is about the most daunting assignment world rugby can throw up.

“I think we’re all aware of it,” said Murray. “We’ve all played in Eden Park and we know how tough it is to win here. Teams have played against New Zealand and come close, the home nations have won against New Zealand in the past, so I think we’re drawing on that more so than looking at their impressive record in Eden Park.

“This is a whole new team, a whole new pod of players with massive talent and I think we’re more excited about that. It is a really impressive record but if there ever was a team that has the potential if we click, we’d be excited about what we can do. That’s the challenge, a challenge against the best team in the world and it’s where you want to be.”

You can follow all of the action from Eden Park on our liveblog from 7.45am on Saturday morning (kick off: 8.35am).