'Being a Lion and with ROG gone – leading is part of my job'
Murray blossoming as Munster's conductor
THE easy grin that crept onto Conor Murray's face when he reflected on his 'moment of madness' in the closing stages of Munster's opening Heineken Cup game against Racing Metro last season highlighted just how far he has come in 12 months.
Despite losing Ronan O'Gara to a hamstring injury, Munster were in control of the game and heading to a critical away victory in Paris when Murray had a rush of blood to the head and did something very uncharacteristic. In circumstances where a straightforward kick to touch from inside his own 20m line was the right option, he rejected the obvious and sought to run the ball.
Racing killed the attempted surge at birth, forced Murray into conceding a penalty and Olly Barkley punished him with the resulting penalty to take a 19-17 lead. Racing did score another penalty, won on the restart, but the fatal error was Murray's.
The scrum-half had occasion to recall his actions when reflecting on JJ Hanrahan's ill-advised chip-and-chase that led to Tim Visser's game-winning try in Murrayfield last weekend.
"The first thing I said to JJ after the game was to have a bit of a laugh and joke about it," said Murray.
"When it happened to me in the Racing game last year Ronan O'Gara came up to me immediately and slagged me about it. ROG knew that bringing it up straight away would help take the awkwardness out of it and help me move on a little bit quicker.
"I'm glad I had that moment and I learned from it. It makes you a stronger player. The positive is that JJ has been his usual chatty self in training and is getting on with it.
"That's important. He'll learn from it too."
Murray's reference to the role O'Gara played in helping him come to terms with his 'moment' in Paris is wholly appropriate as the early indicators are that Murray is filling the role O'Gara left behind as conductor of the team.
He has certainly come a long way in the 12 months since Paris and is now seen as both a leader and a creative influence for those around him.
His decision-making has improved immeasurably, as was evidenced in the role he played in Casey Laulala's try against Edinburgh when he chose to skip his pass past Paul O'Connell on his left shoulder and into the arms of Laulala.
The margin for error was minuscule with Edinburgh's defenders mere yards away and closing fast. Murray had both the confidence and the skill to weigh the pass perfectly and Laulala was left with the relatively easy task of crossing over for the touch-down.
It's safe to suggest that 12 months ago Murray would have taken the safer option and popped the ball into O'Connell's midriff. The benefits of a season of excellence in Munster's colours and a Lions tour where he excelled have improved his game immeasurably.
"The Lions experience definitely improved me as a player," agreed Murray. "It's having greater confidence and self-belief as much as anything technical.
"I have more confidence in backing myself and my decisions."
It's obvious in the 110 minutes – he came on for the last 30 minutes against Leinster – he's played so far that he is comfortable with his elevated status within the playing group. It's a role he's eager to develop.
"It comes from playing at half-back," Murray added. "When you're on the pitch you've got to be driving people, you've got to know the plays inside out, so if someone's asking you: 'where do I go here,' you've got to be able to tell them where to go.
"That comes from being around experienced players like those on the Lions tour and learning from them. The more you play, the more you get a feel for where you want to play the game and what needs to be done at certain times to allow you to do that."
Murray has shown a greater awareness of what is needed as the play develops this season and he is comfortable with the responsibility of taking the initiative. "With my being a Lion and with ROG gone, it's part of my job," he said.
Murray was in Thomond Park for the now famous 2003 meeting between the sides – "I used to get into the ground early and get as close to the tunnel as possible" – and admits to not having a clue about the importance of O'Gara's last conversion to secure qualification on that famous day.
That's in the past and is for supporters to reminisce over. The priority this evening is to focus on what must be done to improve on last weekend.
"We need to believe in our plays and trust in ourselves," he added. "We'll take comfort from knowing that we were in the same position this time last year and came through."