Wednesday 28 September 2016

'We're still out there barking at each other but it is a challenge' - Ireland's Conor Murray

Six Nations champions need fresh lieutenants

Published 23/02/2016 | 02:30

Conor Murray says Ireland are missing Sean O'Brien and Paul O'Connell
Conor Murray says Ireland are missing Sean O'Brien and Paul O'Connell

A modern coach with a master's in management, Joe Schmidt likes his information evidence-based and quantifiable when he's making decisions. Yet, there is one immeasurable quality that the New Zealander respects and draws on, referring to it consistently when analysing his team and that quality is leadership.

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During the first two terms of his tenure, Schmidt had Paul O'Connell to call on and consistently lauded the Munster man for his ability to galvanise his team-mates around him for the common cause.

After beating South Africa in 2014, the head coach used the Maori word 'Mana' to describe his captain, saying he was "a guy who does not know how to give up, (who) prides himself on being as well prepared as he can be and he has massive respect within the group because of how he delivers. When he's done, he delivers again."

Since last year's World Cup, one of Schmidt's projects has been to develop a new core of leaders.

Not only is he doing it without O'Connell, but Peter O'Mahony is also ruled out for the foreseeable future with an anterior cruciate ligament injury meaning that the leadership corps is deprived of one of its key men.

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So, Schmidt is working with new captain Rory Best, vice captain Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Devin Toner and Sean O'Brien among others to develop a new group of leaders to guide his team through their toughest moments.

Although O'Brien has joined the long casualty list, the restoration of Cian Healy (right) and Mike Ross to the match-day 23 will help add experience for Twickenham where Ireland hope to get their first win in four games.

Cian Healy is back in contention for Ireland Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Cian Healy is back in contention for Ireland Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Murray concedes that there is work to do in terms of developing leaders and says the squad must work hard to produce more decision-makers.

"I think we spoke about it before we kicked off in the Six Nations and there's no hiding from the fact you lose someone like Paulie and there's a gap in leadership," he said.

"That was the challenge in the beginning and there's a whole host of players there that were stepping up and it was the likes of Seanie, he's included in that.

"He's a guy that would really drive our defence and line speed and other areas like that and now he's gone obviously, unfortunately, with his injury. That's another challenge for other players, maybe not in the same position, but for someone else to stand up and drive that line speed, that defensive focus, that's naturally going to happen. I'm not going to tell you there's someone like Seanie to come in, there isn't. Seanie is a huge asset for us and really drove that area for us.

"But I always go on about it, everyone knows what they're supposed to do. Besty is doing a great job at driving home a few little concentration points throughout the week.

"Players like Johnny, Jamie is there, that really just drive home the key messages through the week. So far that hasn't been an issue, you haven't had any lack of vocal support throughout the week on the pitch.

"We're still barking at each other, trying to get things right but, yeah, it's a challenge, I'm not going to hide away from that. It is a challenge missing players. We have to step up and that's what we have to focus on this week and make sure it happens."

One of the areas in which decision-making has been an issue is in the opposition '22 where Ireland have struggled to make their presence felt by getting over the line.

For Murray, there is a sense of deja vu for these are similar to the problems his Munster team have encountered during their Champions Cup struggles this season.

"We did get into the '22 with Munster a bit and things broke down but I don't think you can put that down to leadership," he conceded.

"For an example we got into the '22 against France and we went around the corner with the forwards and we had a spilt ball and a knock-on, and that's just individual error and that's just something you can't really account for, it's just something that can happen and it's not someone missing a leadership role during the week.

"It's little things like that that we're trying to get better at, we have proof and we have clips that we are good at it, it's just about tidying up on those areas throughout the week and maybe leadership-wise, like calling each other on it during the week and letting each other know that it's not acceptable, and on Saturday hopefully it won't happen."

Murray insists that despite the worst run of results in the Schmidt era, confidence remains high at Carton House.

"I know we drew but we look at the performance and we took confidence from that. The French game was a little bit of a hiccup," he said.

"We didn't take our opportunities and didn't convert them into scores, especially in the second half.

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"It is a little bit of a weird one to have two games played and not have any wins under our belts but we are fully confident as a team and this is a huge week for us to prepare mentally and show what we can do and put in a performance."

The Championship may be beyond Ireland, but a win at Twickenham is always the best tonic for Irish rugby and, with Italy and Scotland still to come, there is scope to finish the Six Nations with three successive wins.

Given the injuries and schedule, that would represent a strong return and would help wash away the disappointment of the performance in Paris.

However, Murray knows as well as anyone how difficult it is to win in London having never beaten England away from home.

After letting France off the hook, there is an opportunity to give the new generation of leaders confidence in their abilities.

Irish Independent

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