‘I was delighted how I played after Paris, how I didn’t crumble’
After a meteoric rise, Conor Murray endured criticism after a costly blunder with Munster, but he’s determined to take positives and prove his critics wrong
FORGETTING Paris is not an option for Conor Murray -- channelling the experience is the only way he knows.
The scrum-half's rise has been so rapid that it is easy to forget that this time two years ago, only AIL enthusiasts and those who closely follow the underage scene knew who the physically imposing, goal-kicking Garryowen No 9 was.
Tony McGahan took a gamble on him after Munster exited that season's Heineken Cup and, six months later, he was the youngest member of Ireland's squad in New Zealand at the World Cup, establishing himself at the top of the international pecking order last season.
For every rise, however, there comes a fall and the scrum-half got a taste of the negative elements that come with the glory last month in the aftermath of his clanger at the Stade de France.
Having already escaped what should have been a sin-binning, the scrum-half entered nightmare territory as, with five minutes to go, his mistake of carrying into contact inside his own '22' -- he was penalised for holding on -- handed Olly Barkley the chance to put Racing ahead in the crucial Heineken Cup opener. Barkley duly converted to make it 19-17, with Mirco Bergamasco adding another late kick to finish the game 22-17.
Immediately afterwards, the Sky Sports pundits pummelled Murray; the next day the newspapers focused on his error of judgment and the radio phone-in shows questioned his decision making.
It was the most difficult week of his rugby career to date.
"Oh, absolutely. By far," he told the Irish Independent. "But I remember some of the fellas said, 'you're lucky, you've only had that one day in a couple of years'.
"It's not that I'm glad it happened, but you learn so much from it. You learn, especially, about the way you are perceived. You will be a hero one minute and a zero the next. It can happen that quickly and it taught me not to worry about what people outside of the group think of you.
"The way people talk about you afterwards, you just want to go out and prove to them that you are a good player. I wanted to prove, as well, that I am mentally strong, that I can bounce back from something like that."
Murray freely admits that the mistake and the defeat got to him. He had experienced little else but positivity since emerging as the fresh-faced bolter at the World Cup. Now, suddenly, the finger of blame was pointed squarely in his direction.
After dealing with the initial disappointment and coping with the negative attention, the next thing he had to do was respond against Edinburgh.
"That week of training immediately after the Racing game, I was quite low," he said. "The first few days were quite tough and I didn't want to talk to anyone. I'm naturally competitive.
"It was the first time it properly happened to me and it wasn't that I didn't know what to do, but the coaches talked me through it and I was delighted with the way I performed and how I came out and didn't crumble.
"You have to believe in yourself completely, because there are people out there who just want to knock you down. I see that more and more the longer I'm here, you just have to let that go. I was delighted with the way I reacted, I got Man of the Match and scored a try against Edinburgh and that was huge for me."
This afternoon, Murray will win his 13th cap for Ireland and, in keeping with the increased scrutiny he has received in recent months, he has had to put up with a clamour for his removal.
There is a school of thought that Eoin Reddan works better with his Leinster team-mate Jonny Sexton and should be in the team from the start.
But Declan Kidney has remained loyal to his man and the 23-year-old believes that he can impose his game on a Springboks side that includes one of the greatest scrum-halves in the game today. A man he knows well, Ulster's Ruan Pienaar.
He admires the World Cup winner, but he won't be letting the 60-cap Springbok set the agenda.
"He is a great player, a great kicker, a great reader of the game. He pretty much has it all," Murray said. "But while I'd like to think I can learn off him, I have my own strengths as well. I'll play to my own strengths."
One of those strengths that the Munster scrum-half doesn't use as much as he should is his size. He is built like Pienaar and Lions incumbent Mike Phillips, but his rivals make more of that advantage.
"That was a huge thing for me," he acknowledged. "I need to back myself more. I am quite big for a scrum-half. I have got to use that size to my advantage. Whether it be sneaking gaps or picking off tries, it is something I have to do more, something I have been trying to do this year.
"I'd like to think my kicking is quite strong, passing is a big part that I have worked on and, outside of that, it's about making good decisions, reading the game. That's the most important thing.
"You have to have your basics right, but it is about reading the game, pushing your team more and more and, as I learn more, I am making better split-second decisions."
As for working with Sexton, the scrum-half sees no reason why he and the Leinster man shouldn't click.
"It does take a while to get used to other players, but I've been around Jonny a good bit now in the last year or two and we have a good understanding that will only get better as we go on," he said.
Given the nature of Murray's position and the lingering memories of his Parisian faux pas, there will be a focus on the scrum-half today. But he relishes the involvement that playing at No 9 gives him.
"It is a crucial position," he explained. "You learn that people are always watching you, not looking to criticise, but looking to scrutinise what you do. "You are involved so much in the game, it comes with the territory, it is part of the position and I wouldn't change it. It's what I love to do."
He has been through the mill and come out the other side. Now Ireland are hoping that he is all the better for the experience.
Five Young Pretenders
Scrum-halves who could challenge Murray in FUTURE
1 Paul Marshall (Ulster)
Actually four years older than Murray, the diminutive Ulster man has had to bide his time to make the grade but has been in fine form this season. Currently third choice at international level, he could make the grade for the Fiji game next week.
2 Kieran Marmion
The former Exile has exploded on to the scene in his first season in Connacht's first team. Impressive at Heineken Cup level opposite Danny Care, he has a big future ahead of him.
3 John Cooney
Biding his time behind Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss, the Lansdowne No 9 has impressed (right) when given the opportunity and has a Heineken Cup medal after his late cameo in last year's final. Needs to force the issue in the most competitive environment around.
4 Luke McGrath
HE has long since been identified as the great white hope, and the former St Michael's College starlet is progressing through the UCD and Leinster academies and has starred for the Ireland U-20s. At 19, he has time on his side but also has great expectations to deal with.
5 Duncan Williams
Tomas O'Leary's departure has handed the Cork Constitution scrum-half an opportunity, but having been leapfrogged by the younger Murray, he needs to up it this season to be considered for international honours.