Wednesday 16 January 2019

Conor Murray: the evolution of an overnight sensation

Conor Murray's journey to Ireland and Lions heights has been peppered with key figures and influences – all of whom have shaped a brilliant and unique talent

Conor Murray
Conor Murray
Progression: Conor Murray showing early promise for Garryowen in 2009.
Celebrating after the third Lions Test in Sydney. 'Conor will be very confident coming in after the Lions tour,' says Paddy Jackson. 'He did brilliantly over the summer.'
David Kelly

David Kelly

The mould that would ultimately form Conor Murray was cast long before he came upon this earth. For, so many lives maketh the man.

Con Roche played for Garryowen and Munster in the dim and distant past and was once good enough to get a trial for Ireland. He spent 38 years with the ESB in O'Curry Street, Limerick, which was the original depot at that time.

He later moved to Rosbrien, driving a pole truck the length and breadth of the country and its wide expanses of forestry.

On some mornings, he would ferry a special cargo – a collection of his friend's racing pigeons, which, at a suitable time on the road, he would release for training purposes.

They would always make it home, regardless of how far he drove. He used to marvel at the fact that such a little thing could travel 120 miles in just a couple of hours; sometimes it could be twice that distance.

A Munster Senior Cup winner in 1947, the back-row featured on the side that played Australia in Musgrave Park a year later; his thunderous tackle led to the late try that almost secured a famous victory.

But Con Roche would never wear the green of Ireland. Sometimes the regret tugged at his sleeve as he drove the rutted roads of the countryside.

Then, nearly a lifetime later, he would see a fledgling from his own flesh and blood take flight and achieve the things that, if Roche wasn't to have himself, he would rather one of his own experienced them.

He would see his grandson wear an Irish jersey, at first presented to Conor Murray by team-mate and Limerick neighbour Eoin Reddan as a permanent memento following his debut in France before the World Cup in 2011.

Murray would keep that jersey – and Reddan's too – for the subsequent World Cup challenge in New Zealand.

Slightly over a year before, he was a distant seventh or eighth in the Irish pecking order, third or fourth choice with Munster. Now the world lay at his feet.

New Zealand was more than 120 miles away, but Murray never forgot home and the many lives which touched him upon a journey that, even three years later and the pinnacle of a Lions success, shows little sign of decelerating.

His parents were naturally a more directly pivotal influence; after all, a man is shaped most vividly by the intimate environment of his home life.

His father Gerry also worked for the ESB. He was a keen cyclist who competed in the Rás and worked as a camera man on the Tour de France. now he combines a less competitive approach to his two-wheeled existence with the suitably laid-back life of a retiree, whiling away happy hours on the golf course.

Barbara, his mother, is also a keen golfer and her competitive instincts could relate more to her son's than her husband's. She played squash for Ireland and remains an international, deciding to prolong her playing career on the veterans' front.

Indeed, she has been engaged in a keen rivalry with Norrie O'Grady and Christine McIlroy for the privilege of being called Ireland's No 1 in the over-55s section – try telling her that this is less heated than the scrap for the Irish No 9 jersey.

Those who know Murray well can easily perceive the influence of the parents on this particular child; he is bookended by two sisters, Sarah (28) and Aisling (21).

The temperament and talent of each parent has been bequeathed in equal measure. Murray's competitive character and sanguine disposition is impeccably drawn from those seminal parental influences – his smooth movement across the green sward a direct legacy of the nimble footwork required of an international squash player.

Although supportive, their parenting was never pushy. They were suitably ecumenical in allowing free rein to their family's sporting pursuits; in such a democratic and classless sporting community as Limerick, they would have had little other choice.

So, the young Murray immersed himself in GAA. He went to Patrickswell National School and, when he was 12, he represented Limerick in the Sarsfield Cup and also played for Limerick in the primary football games.

An early highlight was a half-time appearance at the Gaelic Grounds when he played half-forward against Kerry as thousands slowly congregated for the main attraction, a Munster SFC semi-final in 2002.

Joe Lyons, of Cumann na mBunscol, recalls that the burgeoning crowds did not seem to faze Murray at all.

It is probably a fanciful memory; few knew what lay ahead for the eager collection of gambolling milky white-legged kids.

A promising midfielder, Murray also hurled underage with Patrickswell – he presented a hefty proposition at corner-forward for the footballers too – but after an U-21 championship hurling defeat in 2007, he decided to concentrate entirely on rugby.

the oval ball had previously never crossed his radar, even in its spiritual Limerick home, until, one day, he pitched up at an U-12 blitz with some friends in Garryowen.

The bug bit. As he graduated from national to secondary school, as is the case for so many flourishing teenagers in this country, the bug's teeth dug in.

He enrolled at St Munchin's, the fabled Corbally college that turned out such lionhearted folk as Colm Tucker, Keith Wood, Jerry Flannery and Keith Earls, not to mention Ireland captains Anthony Foley and Phil Danaher.

They were never renowned as multiple winners of the fabled school cups given such disproportionate importance throughout the land, but, in 2006, starring Earls, they won it.

Murray, then 16, was an unused substitute in the final.

"He's a quality player," says Earls, scorer of the only try in the shock win against PBC. "He was part of that Munchin's squad the year we won it. He was so good, but he never got a run.

"I'm delighted for him because when I was in the Munster squad I used to always see him out in the gym by himself. He always worked hard."

Murray only developed as a scrum-half at senior level in school; again, one of the many lives to touch him would play such a significant role in his transformative, seminal years as a sportsman.

The Murrays used to spend summers on the heavenly beaches of Derrynane on the Ring of Kerry.

His friend, Chris Nolan, a Christians boy, used to rave about the scrum-half position. It seemed to Murray, so often isolated on the wing, the place where his quiet determination could find room to develop expression.

"Chris played Irish Schools, so I was kind of jealous of him and I tried it out," Murray recalled before the 2011 World Cup in this newspaper. "We used to always play tip rugby on the beach in Kerry, so I tried it down there.

"When I went back to Munchin's I was playing Bowen Shield (at U-16 level) and I said it to the coach, 'this is what I want to do'. And he threw me in and I managed to stay there."

If anyone is flummoxed by the astonishing graduation made by Murray, particularly in those months leading up to the 2011 World Cup, where he first exploded on to the world stage, the explanation can be divined in these pivotal late teenage years.

He spent hours honing his craft, correcting weaknesses with extra practice on the road outside his house, encouraging his coaches to seek out as much specialist coaching that was humanly possible at sub-professional level.

The player we see today was hewn from those days of committed endeavour when a boy turned into a man. The specialist coach at Garryowen and then Munster, the peripatetic former Scotland international Greig Oliver, drawn to Limerick by the love of a local girl, Fiona, would play an inestimable role in the development of Murray's burgeoning world-class skills.

"Conor has a great outlook on the game," assesses Oliver, with whom Murray spent literally hours on the training field. "He works hard. He learns things very quickly.

"Although he is tall and some people have compared him to Welsh scrum-half Mike Phillips, I believe he brings different things to the scrum-half position. His pass is very quick. He has played a lot of other sports and that shows in his game.

"The positioning of Conor's feet is very good. He can kick off both feet. His kicking is accurate and he also gets good height on them. He has a lot of strings to his bow. Nothing fazes him. Conor enjoys the game and that is the most important thing."

Murray maintained his progress with run-outs for Young Munster in the All-Ireland League, forming an important cog of their promotion from Division 2 and earning stripes for Ireland underage sides.

In another sporting universe, or so it seemed, 2009 Lions call-up Tomas O'Leary and legend Peter Stringer scrapped for Munster and Ireland jerseys.

Murray had by now moved to Garryowen, where he formed his coaching bond with Oliver, earning a place in the Munster Academy, lining out with Munster 'A' in the British & Irish Cup. But, remarkably, progress at senior level hit a brick wall for much of the time.

Even a year before his World Cup breakthrough, he gauchely revealed to the Munster Supporters' Club what then seemed then to be the absolute limit of his ambitions. "Hopefully, I will be looking forward to a new season with Munster on a senior contract."

Not since Gordon D'Arcy, who declined Warren Gatland's invitation to skip his Leaving Cert and tour South Africa, would a player shoot to prominence so quickly. However, D'Arcy had been mapped as a prodigious schoolboy talent and, like Brian O'Driscoll and so many others of this glorious generation, great things were expected of him from a young age.

Not so Murray. His first appearance in Munster red only arrived in the spring of 2010 and was from the bench against Connacht during a Six Nations window. His first start only came in the spring of 2011 against the Dragons in the Celtic League.

Less than five months later, Gerry and Barbara would witness his international bow, so wonderfully assured, against France in Bordeaux.

Even when he made his debut, he was regarding the roles of all the others who had made it possible; Barbara and Gerry, his coach Oliver, his school coach John Broderick, his grandfather Con.

He baulked at the notion of disparity between himself and Declan Cusack, the fellow greenhorn half-back who had accompanied him on his full Munster senior debut. These days, Cusack is plying his trade in England, via Spain, another of the surfeit of players who didn't make the senior grade in this country.

Their forked career paths have ensured that humility remains an intimate bedfellow as Murray's career soared exponentially, culminating in his emergence last summer as a Test Lion in the series success against Australia.

That his impact on Warren Gatland's squad, surpassing the over-hyped Phillips to whom he has been often unfavourably compared, reflected his status as one of world rugby's best kept secrets.

Now, as Ireland embark upon a campaign as a dark horse for the Six Nations under the guidance of a new coach, Murray is an indispensable fixture within the side.

The secret has long since failed to remain secreted. From the admittedly shy prospect who dared not speak out of turn when he first emerged as an Ireland player – it is still remarkable to think he has almost half as many Ireland caps as Munster ones – he is now a senior decision-maker in this squad, as important in that guise as Jonathan Sexton, O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell.

"He will be very confident coming in after the Lions tour," says Paddy Jackson, who is likely to require some of Murray's guidance during this championship.

"He did brilliantly over the summer. I've played with him a good few times and he's very easy to play with.

"He'll do what I tell him when we have the ball and, when we're under a bit of heat, he can relieve a bit of pressure as well. He seems very comfortable in his game and I like how he is so calm on the pitch."

"it was an eye-opener," says his Munster coach Rob Penney, relating to the gulf of class he bridged with such ease on the Lions tour.

"But the kudos he got for running ahead of a couple of guys with probably higher profiles and doing a great job on that tour against probably the best nine in the world, Will Genia... I think he did a sterling job with the way he played against him. And he ain't the finished product yet. I thought he'd got there with us at the end of last year.

"I thought he was really getting there and he got picked on to the Lions on the back of that and then the rest is history.

"The game against Racing Metro last season (where Murray made a high-profile, game-losing boob, a rare indiscretion) seems a lifetime ago. That kid's now just an entirely different footballer and it's wonderful to see. He's special."

Ronan O'Gara watched Murray emerge from the ranks and is particularly well-placed to chart the progress of the one-time shy boy into the confident, uninhibited performer that stands before us today.

"The best thing about it is that he has been there a short space of time and is a regular, compared to someone who has been there a long space of time and probably proven himself," says O'Gara.

"He's very composed and he is very hard working and he is getting that ability now to start barking at the forwards, which is important when you are behind the Munster and Ireland packs."

His astonishing rise has come at a price; fame is a monster few can control and it is believed that Schmidt was less than pleased when he arrived into the November international camp at precisely the same time as speculation of a move to France was featuring in most sections of the media.

Schmidt didn't blame Murray; however, it is believed that the pair had a private exchange wherein the coach made his feelings expressly clear on the line between what belongs in Ireland camp and what doesn't.

"I suppose you have to be a bit more careful about what you do," Murray, who has since signed a new contract, said recently, when assessing the graduation from minor Munster performer to global superstar.

"Just when you're out and about, there'd be a few more people that recognise you. Other than that, not much really.

"Munster's a down-to-earth place, people don't put you up on a pedestal and treat you like a star. You're still the same person. I get treated the same by the lads I live with anyway, they kind of keep me grounded."

Which does not mean his ambitions remain rooted; his hunger drives him hurriedly to achieve much more, as he told this newspaper in the wake of the Lions tour.

"I want to go to the 2015 World Cup as one of the best scrum-halves in the world. I have that self-belief from the Lions tour and want to grow my game to become one of the best scrum-halves in Europe this season and then grow again for the World Cup in England the following season.

"You don't need a big tour or something like the Lions to aim for in order to have goals. I have personal goals that I won't share, but I have no problem highlighting that one. I want to evolve my game to that level."

Con Roche won't be there to see it. He passed away in 2012, so he never got to see his grandson wear the famous red Lions jersey last summer.

But his legacy lives on in the achievements of Murray. And so, too, the impact of so many others who, however briefly, aided his rise to prominence.

It is remarkable that so many fingerprints can form the basis of just one individual, a reminder that in life, it is impossible to assess when someone's influence stops.

Irish Independent

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