Murray keeps his eye on the big picture
Munster’s No 9 takes it one game at a time after Hollywood-style rise
Published 13/01/2012 | 09:46
You'd like to think there was a greater drama at play when Conor Murray was bounding on to the Thomond Park turf as a young fella to scramble for Ronan O'Gara's autograph.
That somehow he used to brush past Peter Stringer and, with the carefree chutzpah of a teen Hollywood idol, silently declare that soon it would be him, not the shaven-headed one, offering a speedy pill on a silver platter to his idol O'Gara.
"One day," Morgan Freeman might have narrated, "this boy will trod the same field of dreams by day as those men who filled his dreams by night."
Sporting scripts rarely mirror Hollywood fantasy; hence the shortage of truly great fictional sports movies in a century of the medium. Murray's ascent has, however, been possessed with filmic potential.
One moment a virtually anonymous Academy squad player, the next a Munster regular, primed for league title success and then an improbable tilt at World Cup glory with Ireland.
From fourth choice with Munster, arguably seventh or eighth choice with Ireland in the spring, Murray has usurped all rivals in the crowded queue for both red and green number nine jumpers.
In Hollywood, Sam Goldwyn once warned folk not to make forecasts, especially about the future. But even his fiercest critics must acknowledge that Murray's career doesn't look like decelerating any time soon.
Already, a Lions berth in 2013 has been earmarked for his formidably broad shoulders.
O'Gara remains the pivot for his increasingly perceptive and pacey passing, but another Munster legend -- Stringer -- has been forced to decamp to pastures other, resigning himself to the pre-eminence of the new kid on the block.
So long the diminutive poster boy for Munster's munificent contribution to European rugby, Stringer's demotion from both provincial and international ranks continues to stun many non-parochial observers.
Only this week, his one-time Biarritz adversary, the peerless Dimitri Yachvilli (pictured left), who saw at close quarters Stringer's snaking effectiveness in Munster's debut Heineken Cup win, struggled to comprehend the Corkman's exile.
Murray was nonplussed when greeted with the Frenchman's reaction, as well as being naturally diffident at his role in usurping the erstwhile housewives' favourite, Stringer, from his pre-eminent status.
"I didn't hear those comments, but Strings is still an absolutely quality player and he's in unbelievable nick," he says. "If he was here, he'd be one of the fittest and strongest for his body weight.
"He's still got an enormous amount to offer, he's still a great player and, in terms of advice and learning from him, I still have a huge amount to learn from him and his unbelievable experience in the game."
Speaking to this newspaper on the eve of the World Cup, pundit and former England international scrum-half Dewi Morris expressed the feelings of those who are equally as puzzled by Stringer's imperceptible decline in influence at both Munster and Ireland.
"Peter Stringer hasn't done anything wrong," was Morris' opinion, one which will have had little reason to alter in the intervening weeks.
"He does what it says on the tin; he kicks well and his pass is the quickest in Ireland.
"It's a whippy pass, always out in front of the out-half and they always come onto the ball. It's what Declan Kidney wants from a nine. If it's service, that was it right there with Stringer. But I'm more surprised that Tomas O'Leary is gone rather than Stringer."
Which brings us to the third wheel of this intriguing quandary -- Tomas O'Leary, whose seemingly irreversible decline plumbed the depths with the exclusion from a World Cup squad of someone who only two years before had proved an indispensable cog in Ireland's Grand Slam machine.
And perhaps O'Leary's story offers a cautionary warning about investing too heavily in Murray's ability to maintain his meteoric progress.
O'Leary's precipitous decline was almost as accelerated as his own prompt promotion to the front ranks. Murray will be hoping to avoid a similar rollercoaster ride.
After all, his first appearance in Munster red only arrived in the spring of 2010 -- from the bench against Connacht during a Six Nations window -- and his first start came last March against the Dragons.
Since then, it's been all gravy. An international debut, so wonderfully assured, followed in the summer in Bordeaux, and then came a crucial and calm introduction off the bench in the epic Eden Park success against Australia. His has been a road devoid of rumblestrips, a path unfettered by obstacle.
By his own admission, he has been able to afford little time to indulge in wistful recollection at how his personal and professional life have been transformed.
He says that people's reactions to him on the street haven't changed. The truth is that every single Irish person's perception of him has been transformed. Now comes the hard bit.
Such has been his scintillating rise, the expectations become ever more burdensome; a poor display in a poor team performance in the World Cup quarter-final against Wales represented a singular example.
"It's been pretty full on," he admits. "Obviously the World Cup happened, then two weeks off and then straight back into this, so I haven't really had time to get a good break and avoid that second-season syndrome, but hopefully that won't come. I'm just taking one game at a time and enjoying it."
And, comfortingly, he remains wary of the pitfalls to be presented this year, particularly with Munster's prolonged progress in Heineken Cup fare and pressure on Ireland to perform in the Six Nations exposing him to ever more stressful situations.
His response suggests someone who is at once aware of his own limitations and the pitfalls that have befallen other, more storied predecessors in his position.
"Things did go well for me in the World Cup, but I'm sure I'm yet to be tested and I'll experience tougher days at international level," he says. "Fingers crossed."
Even at just 22, he knows that there is no pre-ordained script.