Tuesday 23 January 2018

Fighting his corner after rapid ascent to top ranks

Now Ireland's No 1 scrumhalf, Conor Murray is determined to keep it that way, says Brendan Fanning

By way of research we asked a young rugby fan what he would most like to know about Conor Murray. Expecting a question perhaps about how long he spends practising his pass, or what it was like to sprint from the back of the bunch to become the top scrumhalf in Ireland, the response was left of centre.

"Ask him if he uses hair straighteners."

This reminded us of life in a previous existence, receiving an order from an unhinged newspaper editor, after Ireland had lost dismally to Scotland in Murrayfield in 1993, to ring up each and every member of the team and ask them why they were such 'w**kers.'

Naturally enough we did as bid but altered the wording slightly. And this time, figuring that the interview could be lost if we opened on a note about personal grooming, we parked it until the main business was done.

And with young Mr Murray there is plenty of business on the agenda.

Some will find it hard to fathom for example that next weekend's tie with Northampton Saints in Thomond Park will be his first in the Heineken Cup. Coming after six caps for Ireland, four of them in the World Cup, this sequence of country before province is O'Driscollesque.

Of course it was Munster that launched him towards the World Cup. In the short career of Conor Murray, the key week was in March this year when Peter Stringer and Tomás O'Leary came back from the Six Nations squad and coach Tony McGahan stuck with the man who had been minding the shop while they were away.

"Playing with Munster towards the end of the season really stood to me because they were really high-standard games and I ended up coming through them -- I thought -- pretty well," he says. "I suppose Tony did as well because he kept me in for the run-in to the (Magners) final. The faith he showed . . . I owe him a lot for that because that's what allowed me to push on into the Irish squad. We mightn't be having this conversation if he'd put the two lads back in. I don't know if I would have accepted it, but I couldn't have argued with it. He could have just said the lads were more experienced and they were coming back from Irish duty."

The perception of Murray is either that he arrived late and then made up for lost time, or that he's a kid who was just discovered this year and has made unreal progress. He's actually 22, so hardly sprog material. And if you call Ireland under 19s late then sure enough he was a bit behind. It wasn't that he was idle, just that in the current climate of tracking kids from 16, with a view to having them in academies by the time they leave school, Murray doesn't fit that bill.

A combination of circumstances meant he wasn't a frontline rugby player from the start. Oddly enough this has nothing to do with coming from Patrickswell where he hurled -- it would have been unnatural not to -- but not with anything like the passion he had for soccer and Gaelic football.

Then, when he went to St Munchin's, he was overage for his peer group so hadn't much enthusiasm for playing ahead of himself. In time he would get involved in schools cup rugby, but it wasn't until his final year there that the pressure came on to abandon other pursuits.

He did so, reluctantly, for he associates soccer especially with endless games with his pals when parents would stop play long after light made it hazardous. The reward for focusing on rugby was to make the outer reaches of the Munster Schools squad. "I was 23rd man. The fella who doesn't even tog out," he remembers. "The lads have a good laugh at me for that."

Thereafter he made the squads for Munster and Ireland at under 19 level whereupon he got the call from Munster to join their Academy. "That's when I got tuned into the whole idea of being a professional," he says. "At that stage everyone was talking about whether they had Academy places or what's your story."

Once on board three years ago, Murray made a name for himself, first as a player who was happy to work as hard as it took to get ahead, and then for what he could do on the field. We came across him first in the AIL for Garryowen two years ago and he looked like a man who wouldn't be at that level too long. Fast forward to him being named as part of the cast of thousands assembled initially to prepare for the World Cup and the odds started to shorten on him making the trip. You suspect also that the players who knew best how quickly he would take the next step were the other scrumhalves in the squad: Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss. Sure enough, Murray made the most of his time in New Zealand.

"It was a brilliant experience," he says. "I thought we'd struggle to pass the time during the day because we only did three sessions a week on the pitch and we had our weights as well but in between that and games there's a lot of free time and I thought going over there it'd be hard enough. I brought a book with me and I ended up only reading four pages of it. We were just always doing stuff and everyone, all the provinces, got on really well, it wasn't forced or anything like that. It was a really happy squad. I thought I'd get homesick but not at all. I wanted to stay out there as long as we could.

"Obviously when you think about the Wales game that's the one point you'd like to have back and see how we could go about it again. But when you look at the tournament as a whole it was brilliant and I suppose it will stand to me in years to come. I learned a lot from it and took a lot of positives from it, bar that one negative game."

Seemingly those positives included being dropped from a great height not once, but three times, as be bungied his way around the country. "I got a bit addicted to that thrill," he admits. In his day, Murray's dad had some scary moments as a marshal on the pro cycling circuit, this is the hairy gig on the motorbikes, not standing on the side of the road with a flag, and he says his mam was also considering following her son's lead over the edge at the Nevis River in Queenstown, which at 134 metres is the second highest bungy in the world. So there seems to be some adrenalin-seeking in the Murray blood.

Now for thrills their son will have to content himself with fighting off Tomás O'Leary in Munster, and then getting to the Six Nations in February with his star still shining brightly. The challenge will be to do it with a Munster team whose Heineken Cup reputation has been dismantled. Murray is one of the young men the fans will look to to reassemble it, for already the bolter status of last summer seems years back.

"The Heineken Cup is going to be pretty new to me but hopefully the bit of experience I gained over the last while will help me to perform in those games. There's a good buzz abut the Munster squad at the

moment. I'm only back a week but there's still a lot of young fellas here who have to come through and haven't got much game time over the last few years but they're still around and they can fill in for the older guys. And those older guys, or whatever term you want to call them, are still on their game. People are really excited about our group and everybody is clued in at the minute. Danny Barnes is one fella -- he played in the final last year and in the run-up and he's been scoring tries -- and Peter O'Mahony would be another."

Murray's confidence aside, Munster are short on new blood, and his new status as a scrumhalf with game-changing capacity will load a lot of responsibility on him. He sounds perfectly happy with all of this, having come home from the World Cup three kilos heavier -- good weight, which can be hard to find -- and both physically and mentally raring to go.

And so to the critical issue: if we were to set the sniffer dogs on his kitbag would they come up with grooming products that included a set of hair straighteners?

"No, absolutely not!" he says. "I get a fairly bad doin' down here over the Justin Bieber look, but definitely nothing like that."

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