Much has been made of the fact that Conor Murray only has 22 minutes of game time under his belt going into the November internationals, yet perhaps nobody needed a break more than the Lions captain.
The Limerick native could be forgiven for being embittered after a summer of highs and lows.
Named in the Lions squad, he was the shock pick as captain when Alun Wyn Jones got injured, but lost the armband when the Welshman made his miracle recovery.
Suddenly, the stand-in skipper was losing momentum on the pitch, and he lost his starting place to Ali Price.
He came off the bench to help win the first Test and got his No 9 shirt back as a result, but things didn’t go well in the second Test and he was back among the replacements for the decider. So, he came home in a spin.
“It had every type of emotion throughout the eight weeks. It was interesting, but I loved it overall. I genuinely loved the tour,” he said.
“It’s a pity we couldn’t get the win, I thought we were definitely good enough to win the series; obviously a late penalty was the difference at the end, but it was a great eight weeks.
“It was difficult, it was really enjoyable, it was challenging, it was rewarding, it was tough at times. So, like I said, it had every type of emotion.
“But, overall, I thought we had an unbelievable group of players that just kind of rallied – with the Covid situation and the few cases and this, that and the other. I just think everyone just kind of got on with it, and knew what the challenge was.
“I’ve really fond memories of it, to be honest, whereas some people are kind of surprised to hear that.”
Players talk a lot about resilience these days and Murray is now ready for whatever the rest of his rugby career throws at him.
“We had time off after and I had a reflection period over the holidays with family and loved ones – and I think it’s brought a bit of calmness to me, more than before,” he explained.
“With all that was thrown at me – I’m talking personally now for the moment – I thought I dealt with it pretty well and I’m proud with the way I reacted and kept moving and kept trying to get better and influenced the group in a positive way.
“Because, there were so many things happening on that tour, whether it be me personally or to other players, whether it be selection or captaincy or this, that and the other, yeah. I think I have a different level of calmness to me, because there was so much thrown at you and I’m happy with how I responded to it.
“At times, when you might have been a bit frustrated or stressed, there was a group of lads that you’d know quite well from previous tours; we had a couple of chats some nights, good discussion about the Lions being too big a thing for you to be throwing the toys out of the pram or not giving your all to it, no matter whether you disagree with selection or whatever the issue is at the time.
“That kind of maturity from me and a few other guys, it was just a nice group to be able to share that with – and be able to dust ourselves down and then contribute in a positive way.
“That group is really tight and you made new friends and got closer to guys you knew already and formed really good relationships.”
This week is all about Murray’s long-time half-back partner Johnny Sexton, who wins his 100th Ireland cap against Japan on Saturday.
Between the Lions and Ireland, Murray is on course to win his 100th international cap against Argentina, if he features in all three games this month. For Ireland alone, he’s on 89 and on track to hit the century on the tour to New Zealand next summer.
That marks the end of Murray’s current contract, but the Munster star is determined to keep on going as the 2023 World Cup looms into view.
“You look at it and, obviously, we’ve spoken about it. I’ve seen a few things in the media about our camp chatting about that,” he said of the team’s explicitly stated desire to hit new heights in France.
“I think that’s really good, that we set out a road map to that. I definitely have long-term goals and short-term goals, like anyone else.
“But, you take it week to week. You’re probably bored of us saying it’s game by game or whatever, but I’m in November camp now. I’ve played 20 minutes for Munster this season and I’m really excited about this November, the body feels great getting back into the international set-up and playing international rugby.
“You take it campaign by campaign or week to week. I’m buzzing about playing Japan. We all have different experiences against them with Ireland and the Lions. We know how tough this week is going to be.
“I suppose for me since the crowds are allowed back and the excitement around that, it’s all about this week.
“I really enjoy these weeks. I suppose if you have a certain amount of caps you know how special they are, how many you might be able to get to, but it’s just to make sure you enjoy every week and make the most out of it.
“I think that’s what gets the best out of me, focusing on it week to week and really soaking it up.
“Because the crowds are back, it’s going to be incredible, but, yeah,
long-term, you never know what milestone you could hit.”
Murray is delighted that Sexton’s achievement will be marked in front of a home crowd.
“It’s unreal that it’s in front of a full house, hopefully at the weekend,” he said, a little optimistically.
“He’s the type of player that deserves that. I think you’ll hear it when he runs out on Saturday, the crowd will show their appreciation for what he’s given to the game.
“He’s flying around the place, he looks fit and energetic and he’s loving rugby. It’s amazing to see the hunger he still has at this stage of his career.”
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