Liam Toland: Peerless Conor Murray possesses rare killer instinct
Leicester must fix passing problems to mount serious challenge to Munster
Conor Murray running the game against Leicester in Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
What would happen to ongoing negotiations if CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony had the same skill set as Tadhg Furlong? Much of what the Irish tighthead does is based around his core work of scrummaging, lineouts, breakdowns and carrying in heavy traffic, but there’s another dimension to his game, which all backrows could emulate.
His brilliance is in the corridors of power where he watches scenarios unfold then helps unlock space wider out for others to benefit from. But his skill set is still within our grasp. Under the right conditions most players can, in time, mimic Furlong.
The bridge to Furlong is buildable, but there’s a gigantic causeway out to Conor Murray. Man of the match awards are often handed out to an outhalf who kicks all the points or an outstanding performance such as that produced by Munster’s Sam Arnold last Saturday.
Keatley simply lifted his right hand in a humble acknowledgment that his rehabilitation is complete. He has transitioned from a situation many months ago where he was avoiding the number 10 slot by clearing out, filling the blind side etc, to a man who is revelling in every opportunity, which is a joy to watch.
When at his best Keatley gets multiple touches on a flowing Munster movement and when outhalves get that other players excel. By half-time it was clear individual and team goals were being achieved.
Down in the Munster trenches all were comfortable, but especially so with the ball. Rory Scannell is supremely physical but becoming sublime, with a wonderful right-hand pass testing his receiver as Munster applied pressure from deep.
Two players in particular shone, Rhys Marshall at hooker and openside Chris Cloete. Both could have won man of the match. However, Murray was the most significant performer and the ease with which he performs is worth examining.
Leicester’s number four, five, six, seven and eight were very poor, which in many ways accentuated the overexuberance and often ill-disciplined actions of their captain Tom Youngs, who looked out of control. Had his backrow and second row engaged in the contest, his conduct would have been hidden and had less impact.
Who, what, where, when, how and why are questions that have always fascinated me. The key is always in the how and why. This is where Murray has the golden touch. He decides how to run the game then gets the players focusing.
Whatever call may have been made in advance, like Furlong, he has the capacity to wait and watch the scenario unfold before employing the best solution, regardless of call. There are scrumhalves in Ireland, and beyond, with a “slightly” better pass, but there are none who can, at the highest level, wait and watch before executing the killer play.
With Murray in mind my homework this week was not to rewatch the super away win by Leinster over Exeter, but to watch Exeter on the road against Montpellier in October.
Having beaten Glasgow at home in round one, Exeter went on to beat Montpellier away 27-24. I noted Exeter coach Rob Baxter’s pre-match comments in France were “not get too carried away by how the game ends but how we start the game”.
How this attitude changes in the RDS on Saturday, after losing last week remains to be seen but he did want his team “to go after the game as hard as they can from the start”. Baxter wanted to go flat out keeping tempo and pace on the game. That makes sense against Montpellier, but against Leinster?
Going flat out is relatively easy, and Exeter excel at it; ditto going slow, but knowing when to slow down and speed up and then slow down again is what Murray understands.
Exeter received the kick-off from Montpellier and played over and back, exiting at ease, and in doing so they executed 25 passes involving backs and forwards, pull-backs, skips, double skips, decoy runners, one-up carries and width, utilising forwards and backs all across the line.
But, unlike Leicester in Thomond Park, every one of those 25 passes tested the catcher, not in catching behind, like many of Leicester’s, but out in front.
In fact it wasn’t until 29:46 before Exeter passed behind the catcher, Henry Slade, ironically from their scrumhalf Nic White. They were all executed with wonderful ambition and accuracy that even at this level is a rare sight.
Leicester can fix their appalling performance from the four, five, six, seven, and eight and in doing so can challenge Munster, with scrumhalf Youngs more prominent. But can they readjust their inaccurate execution of lateral passing?
For Exeter it is not clinical, highly technical and ambitious rugby that will get them winning in the RDS on Saturday but their control. This is where Johnny Sexton and especially Murray are world leaders.
PS: Today the boys of Crescent College Comprehensive take on St Munchin’s College in Limerick’s Markets Field. Do go along to see the Dudley Herbert and Seán Conneely Cup played for by young men who are raising money for the Simon Community and the Peter McVerry Trust.