Conor Murray has been given plenty of advice over the years, from coaches, team-mates, former players, fans et al. But one piece of advice will always stick with him. It was the day he arrived up to training with Munster, having just earned his first professional contract, and amongst those who shook his hands in congratulation was Iain Dowling.
"I remember it so clearly. He goes: 'The hard work starts now. The easy part is over.' Getting a contract is the easy bit.' I always remember that. He was just such a hard trainer and he had won two Heineken Cups, and was still training insanely hard." Dowling's advice remains as pertinent now as ever. Murray has returned to the Munster and Irish set-ups this season with his game and reputation enhanced by the Lions tour. Now he knows he has to work insanely hard to make himself better again.
Tournaments/tours seem to suit his mentality. Murray went out to the World Cup as Ireland's third choice scrum-half and returned as first-choice. From a similar starting point on the Lions' tour, had there been another Test he'd assuredly have been first-choice after again making rapid strides.
Besides, any delusions of grandeur would have been quickly dispelled by Joe Schmidt dropping him to the bench against Australia. "Last week was a tough week mentally," Murray admits.
“That was my first Test in 17 (Irish) Tests not starting. Joe is obviously trying to build a squad but you’ve just got to believe in yourself and believe you are number one, and even if you get fewer chances you’ve got to prove that.”
Murray had become more used to making an impact off the bench on the Lions tour when, in addition to starts against the Western Force, the Combined NSW/Qld Country and the Rebels, he was a replacement against the Barbarians, the Brumbies and in the second and third Tests.
“Coming on in a Test, what’s going through my mind, is ‘just do the basics well’. The game might break up and you might put someone through a hole but don’t come on and say ‘I gotta make a break here. I gotta do something special here.’ You’ve got to be patient, and you’ve usually got about 20/25 minutes to do that.”
Murray has always had a quick pass; the criticism being that he took a step or two too many. Yet under Warren Gatland's Lions, with Rob Howley as backs coach, Murray seemed to fix his feet more and move the ball without taking a step, as well as growing visibly in confidence.
“It probably had crept into my game a little bit, taking a few steps when I don’t need to, but with Joe now I think that’s a good thing. He’s going to add strings to your bow that you weren’t aware off and in training it’s all about getting it away.” Schmidt has already been keeping Murray on after training and taking him aside.
People have asked Murray what Howley did for his game and he admits he struggles to answer. "The main point was that he instilled a lot of confidence in me. When you did something well in a game or in training and you've a fella like that telling you that – Rob Howley was an unbelievable scrum-half – was a real boost."
Coming on in the 61st minute of the third Test, with the score 22-16, Murray had a very positive impact with his accurate distribution and strong running, even claiming an assist for Jamie Roberts' coup de grace in the 41-16 win.
Amongst the feelings that “stick out in the memory” are the Magners League final in Thomond Park at the end of his breakthrough 2010-11 season against Leinster. “When we got that pushover try to go beyond seven points, the run back to the 22 and you looked up at the sea of red flags. That was one. The World Cup win against Australia but the Lions is probably the stand-out.”
He remembers them kicking to the corner late on and becoming a little “giddy” as they passed the sidelines and saw team-mates already celebrating. “I soaked it up. It was great to do well when I came on and we built such a strong bond, and the history behind it, with it being 16 years since the last series win.”
Acutely aware that he was Ireland's first Lions' scrum-half since Colin Patterson and John Robbie in 1980 in South Africa, Murray was chuffed to receive hand-written letters from Patterson before and after the tour, as well as an email from Robbie.
After four week's holidays and six weeks' pre-season, he made a swift impact with that cameo off the bench against Leinster, after which his coach, Rob Penney, described Murray as "world-class".
Unlike, say, Phillips (however much tongue-in-cheek it might be with him) Murray is too innately modest to ever describe himself thus, but no harm. “That’s part and parcel of it, especially from being on the Lions and getting that self-belief. You want to push yourself and really find out how good you can be. I wouldn’t feel I am world-class at the moment. I know I’ve a lot of things to work on and with Joe I’m working on things to add a few strings to my bow.”
Penney may also have been prodding the IRFU into making Murray, out of contract at the end of the season, an offer he can’t refuse. A Limerick boy, whose dad Con Roche played lock and flanker for Munster, he has a real sense of responsibility toward Munster.
“As Seanie (O’Brien) said he’s built something with Leinster, and I’d like to think I have with Munster as well and I’d like to picture myself doing something special with them. There’s a lot of things to weigh up, and as Sean said it is a short career, but I want to concentrate on November because it probably is a distraction.”
Although still only 24, Murray already has 21 caps and is a Lions' scrum-half. With all the strengths he has going for him, to not go on and have a special career would be a disappointment.
"Murray has that ability to make breaks and challenge defenders," said ex-All Blacks scrum-half Justin Marshall this week. "He has emerged as a leader, along with Jonathan Sexton, in the Irish team and one that will be there for years to come."
Murray talks about this week's focus in training, and of bringing a different level of intensity tomorrow. His dad Gerry, who was once a cameraman on the Tour de France, and mum Barbara, who played squash for Ireland, will be there, and both his sisters Sarah and Aisling. Barbara will also be bringing a friend, Noreen Hourigan, whose leg was recently amputated.
“She’s a huge Munster fan and you see people making that much of an effort, you’ve got to repay that, understand how big it is and what an opportunity we have. You want to make sure you make your family proud and give them something to cheer about.”
“Playing the All Blacks at the Aviva is going to be a great occasion, but we’ve got to have our minds switched on in terms of what we’re trying to do, and believe in our attack structure.”