Thursday 21 September 2017

Murray won't settle for understudy role

Driven young scrum-half sets sights on Test starting spot

Conor Murray during Lions squad training
Conor Murray during Lions squad training
Conor George

Conor George

A peculiarity of Conor Murray's career is the significant part Australia seems to play in the seminal moments.

It was against Australia in November 2010 that he came off the bench for Munster during the 15-6 win on a thunderstorm of a night in Thomond Park. Murray played the last 12 minutes of the game, having replaced Duncan Williams.

He had made his senior debut against Connacht the previous April but this was the first real glimpse of the big time for the then 21-year-old. It was also the first indication he was a player to keep an eye on.

When he leap-frogged Tomas O'Leary for a place in the Ireland squad for the 2011 World Cup, it was accepted that his elevation had more to do with O'Leary's loss of form than the strong performances he had been putting in with Munster, and he travelled to New Zealand

as third choice scrum-half behind Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss.

When he was selected to start the opening game against the US Eagles, it was expected that Murray (left) would then take up his position on the bench, behind his more experienced colleagues.

Murray had other ideas, however, and in all the hoopla about possible retirements after the win against Australia, it's often overlooked that both half-backs were replaced in that game and the Munster man actually closed out the match at No 9.

His selection for the Lions squad took a lot of people by surprise. Harlequins' England international Danny Care had been touted to take the third slot alongside Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs, but the Munster v Harlequins Heineken Cup quarter-final rearranged that pecking order.

Murray's performance off the bench against the Barbarians on Saturday night put the 24-year-old right in the mix for a Test spot on June 22. For certain, Phillips' performance has him in pole position, but Murray is breathing down his neck.

The Limerick man played the last 23 minutes of the game, passed well, kicked well and made a couple of impressive breaks to create gaps for others to exploit and score tries.

Nothing annoys the combative scrum-half more than the suggestion that he was an overnight success with Munster.

He is always quick to point out that he spent a couple of seasons in the Academy and was a regular member of the senior training squad before getting his break during the 2010/11 season.

Australia's assistant coach Tony McGahan, Munster's head coach from 2008-12, vividly remembers the hunger in Murray as he worked at honing his craft.

"We were working on Conor's development for at least 18 months before he was exposed to senior-team action," said McGahan.

"We wanted to make sure he wouldn't get bashed around at that level and was ready for the physical aspect of playing at that level.

"The reward for all the work he put in was that he was able to move quickly up to international level soon after breaking through with Munster.

"It was the same with Peter O'Mahony, Mike Sherry, Simon Zebo. When players are young, the risk is in promoting them too early.

"It's about finding the right time for them mentally and physically.

"You have to have the temperament and have to be able to balance that with the competitor that resides inside.

"Conor's work-ethic is phenomenal, which is why he has risen to where he is."

Murray makes his first start for the Lions tomorrow against Super 15 side Western Force.

The Perth-based franchise are expected to field an under-strength side but that won't diminish Murray's achievement in getting to Australia one bit.

He will form part of an all-Irish half-back partnership alongside Jonathan Sexton.

TRIO

The side will be captained by Brian O'Driscoll, and the trio will have another five Irishmen for company.

Sean O'Brien and Rory Best will be making their Lions debuts, and the team will also include Cian Healy and 2009 tourists Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe. Bowe makes his first appearance on this tour.

All eight Irishmen are potential Test starters if they show their best form.

Overall, five of tomorrow's starting team will be making their Lions debuts.

The game kicks off at 11.0am Irish time (7.0pm Australian time).

Irish Independent

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