Conor Murray: The last World Cup was a whirlwind... now I know what to expect
Conor Murray is ready to take another World Cup by storm
At only 26 - and a bit -there's a decent chance Conor Murray will still be around the Ireland squad for 2019 when Rugby World Cup breaks new ground and goes to Japan. And if he is, you know that in his quieter moments he will still be drifting back to the summer of 2011, when he went from satellite status to the centre of the galaxy.
Every player has fond memories of the lift they hitched onto the high road. For Murray, that will always be the World Cup. He started out seemingly as the back marker in a fat group of five scrumhalves in Declan Kidney's preliminary squad. He ended up first choice. The intervening journey has sped along for him, with Six Nations Championships and a successful Lions tour to his credit, but each point along the way has been registered in the brain bank.
"I'm not sure how to describe it, but I remember every game since then," he says. "Back then it was just a whirlwind: everything happened so quick and every week there was something new happening. There was the run-in with Munster in the Magners League to winning the final, and then the phone call to be in the training squad. Then going up to the training squad for the first week, trying just to keep my head down and train. The lead-up the games - being the 24th man for the Scotland game first, just getting the taste of an international day - a game day. Then the week after, being on the bench for my first cap against France.
"Everything I was dealing with was a new experience, week on week. This time around it's a little bit different - not that I know what to expect, but I know the enormity of the World Cup and the hype and buzz around it. The last time - it wasn't that I wasn't aware of it, because I was - but it was just all new and I was trying to deal with those new experiences. Going to New Zealand and starting against USA on September 11 and all that, and trying to do the best I could. And then Australia, just new things happening. It was only when I got home I realised how big it was and where I had come from and managed to get to."
Today he will make the journey from his home in Limerick to Fota Island, the last stop on the Ireland squad's tour of the country before they head back to Carton House, to prepare for the warm-up against Wales in a fortnight. They took in spells in Galway and Dunboyne Castle before today's arrival in Cork. They'll be there until wrapping up on Wednesday with an open session in Irish Independent Park. And after that it's a short hop into the four-Test warm-up series.
If you've wondered why Wales are broadcasting their every move on the road to World Cup, and England are flashing up images of their players rafting on the Colorado Rapids, it's because they want to get it out there that, for them, peak fitness is rolling around the corner, right on time. Ireland, in contrast, have been limbo-dancing under the radar.
"England might have travelled to get away from their media because, obviously, it's going to be crazy for them during the tournament," Murray says. "And you can understand Wales' approach as well - they're doing their thing. But we have our own set-up and we're happy in it. As well as our coaching staff we have our strength and conditioning staff with Jason Cowman, who we fully believe in. We've done the work before under him - we've gotten fit, gotten strong and made the gains.
"We might not be in the papers or whatever. We're very happy where we are: we're building and building. Throughout the Six Nations we never felt unfit or weaker than any opposition. We felt we had a really good standard, and we will put some more on it come the World Cup. Everyone's different and we're very happy to be doing what we're doing. We don't worry too much about other teams till we're playing them."
With that in mind the training diet is shifting now from the heavy lifting of what has been almost a month, on and off, since they convened in Co Kildare, to refreshing and fine-tuning the game-plans that have made them Europe's most consistent team over the last two seasons. And over this weekend and last there has been the welcome break in the form of watching the Rugby Championship from the southern hemisphere.
Joe Schmidt briefed them before that tournament started on what the referees would be looking out for. Nothing starts as it should, so Murray fully expected a much tougher approach to yesterday's Tests from the first round, all of which has implications for the World Cup. As for the team who shone brightest in that opener, and whom Ireland can't meet unless they both make the semi-finals, he was impressed by the Wallabies.
"They'll be a team who, once they get a head of steam up, will be very hard to stop. With their continuity play they keep the ball alive very well and they're natural footballers. They're very exciting - especially with (Matt) Giteau there now. It'll be interesting to see his role in the whole set-up. They have a system that they believe in but, having said that, they play what they see. And (Michael) Cheika has them well drilled in certain aspects of the game that they have to get right in order to play like that."
He expects the same of his own coach. Naturally enough, given that Murray is not just first choice at nine but one of the first names on the team sheet, he likes life under Joe Schmidt. The New Zealander has developed his game, which helps if you're in the business of constant improvement.
It was underlined for Murray last Monday when he was on the team bus heading for something different - to Newgrange, from their base in Dunboyne Castle - when there were howls of delight and despair, depending on whose bets looked like coming in at the British Open. Paul Dunne's predicament popped into the scrum-half's head, for it took Murray back to his own rapid transformation from virtual unknown to very well known.
"The challenge I was faced with next was staying in the team and building as a player," he says. "I know how that feels. It's definitely the beginning for Paul Dunne. I know just from a sports point of view you get your chance and people seem to think: 'That's it, you're going to be there forever.' But it's completely different. Now you've set the bar for yourself, you don't just stay there - you've got to keep working, keep striving to get better and better. Hopefully, it starts from there and you'll see the rewards."
That would be a good outcome for all concerned.
Sunday Indo Sport