Conor Murray: Twickenham warm-up will be more trial by fire
‘It’s a massive game that could get away from you if you’re not up for it physically’
Conor Murray at Ireland Rugby squad training at the Campus, Faro, Portugal on Tuesday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It’s only a warm-up game, but then again it’s England. Furthermore, it’s Twickenham, and, as the many dust-ups in Cardiff last Saturday underlined, the sight of the Red Rose tends to have an effect on their Celtic opponents.
As Warren Gatland noted after Wales’s 13-6 win over Eddie Jones’s team last Saturday, “That was a proper Test match.” This Saturday’s Anglo-Irish affair in southwest London is unlikely to be any different.
Unlike normal seasons, these Irish players aren’t being eased in off the bench in the Pro14.
“I don’t know how you take the big-game element out of it,” admitted Conor Murray, one of those expected to make his seasonal debut on Saturday. “In Twickenham, or against England, or away from home in general, it’s a massive game and a game you’ve got to start really well. It’s a game that could get away from you if you’re not up for it physically. It’s all well and good doing your pre-season and all your fitness and weights and phase play but, at the end of the day, the contact is a massive part of this game.
“You look at the momentum-givers they have – the Vunipolas, Itoje, Mako is back this week, Tuilagi, that’s a massive part of the game against any team, in particular England.
“Personally, as players and a team that are going to play this weekend, it’s a Test match. You’ve got to get up for it, be really on top of your work, be physically and mentally ready. We’ve worked really hard on a few things and hopefully they’ll flourish in the game.”
For most of this side it will be their first outing together in Irish jerseys since the 25-7 defeat by Wales in Cardiff last March, the Six Nations having also been book-ended by the 32-20 loss at home to England.
“It’s not a motivating factor in the dressing-room, it’s an individual thing and to be honest with you it’s gone, it’s over,” said Murray, speaking from the squad’s training camp in Quinto do Lago on the Algarve in Portugal.
“Looking back on that England game, we just made a bad start and that seemed to be the start of the storyline for our Six Nations outside our group and maybe a little bit inside our group.
“That was the starting block, the standard set, and it felt like we were chasing ourselves,” admitted Murray, who nonetheless maintained they were “still really valuable learning lessons”.
Jack Carty replaced Johnny Sexton late on in Cardiff, and all the signs are that Carty and Ross Byrne will be seeing more game time over the next two matches.
“Yeah, it’s a huge stage and a huge opportunity for the lads, but I’ve really enjoyed working with everyone over pre-season and it’s been a chance to get a few more reps in with those lads.
It’s not like going into a small game. It’s Twickenham and a massive test
“With Ross and Jack it’s just about understanding them individually and that’s through spending time off the pitch with them as well. That’s really important, just getting to know their personality and how they tick.
“It could be a huge chance for them and I’m looking forward to it. It’s not like going into a small game. It’s Twickenham and a massive test and I think the two of them have shown the quality to control the game and they have the ability and they deserve their chance there.”
As to focusing much of their training on phase play, Murray said: “Phase play is hugely important and I think at times during the Six Nations dealing with other teams’ line speeds was a bit difficult.” Hence, they have been focusing on “how to get the momentum back once we’ve maybe been hit behind the gainline a couple of times and keep the opposition guessing”.
Admitting it was an area Ireland needed to improve, the scrum-half added: “Eight weeks of pre-season is a nice time to work on that and, hopefully, I’d be confident you’ll see an improvement there.”
Of course, the primary purpose of this trek to Quinta do Lago, where 14 per cent of the population are Irish, is for the squad to familiarise themselves with the kind of heat expected in Japan, as well as bonding closer.
To the latter end, there was a night out in the Cheeky Pup, an airy, modern Irish gastropub in the Quinta Shopping mall which opened on St Patrick’s Day in 2017.
Saturday’s supposed to be hot, but then again Japan is meant to be a different level with the humidity
The temperatures are in the high 20s but, as the squad went through their paces on an almost windless day in the Campus, a sprawling, modernistic sports centre, it felt a good deal warmer. Come 3pm on Saturday the forecast is for 27 degrees in southwest London.
“You get used to it quite quickly, which is good,” said Murray. “Speaking to most of the lads it is becoming less and less noticeable. Saturday’s supposed to be hot, but then again Japan is meant to be a different level with the humidity. This is as close as you can get.”
Happy to have overcome his worrisome neck problem by the end of last season, Murray now says: “I feel as good as I’ve ever felt. I’ve put an emphasis on the strength, little niggles I’ve focused on, and that’s the aim coming out of pre-season: to feel as fit and as strong in the areas that you want to feel strong in and be ready to go.
“It’s probably the nicest time of year when you can work really, really hard and you’re not dealing with bumps and bruises on Sunday and Monday.
“I think the squad’s in a good position physically and then the rugby takes a massive step forward from two weeks ago to this weekend.”
It sure does.