'I didn't take it seriously until I played in the Junior Cup'
Munster and Lions star Conor Murray says schools rugby a great education for professional game, writes Cian Tracey
'Young players should always remember that mistakes happen to absolutely everyone and once you deal with them in the right way, it will only make you stronger'In his early days growing up, Conor Murray's passion for rugby was almost non-existent. In fact, the Ireland and Lions scrum-half admits that he used to avoid having to play the game.
Coming from Patrickswell, a Limerick hurling stronghold, rugby never really entered the equation for him. Having represented Limerick in the Primary Game, his focus was firmly elsewhere.
"My dad always gives out to me when I say this in interviews, but when I was in the U-12s, he used to bring me out to Garryowen and I hated it! I used to curl up in my bedroom every Sunday morning and hope I wouldn't have to go," he confessed.
That all changed, however, when Murray enrolled in St Munchin's College in 2002. A school that lives and breathes rugby, but also has a major passion for GAA, he felt like he belonged.
Any potential schools rugby career was quickly put on hold, though, when he realised that he was overage to play with his own year. Instead he was forced to play with the second-year students and that didn't sit well with him.
"I didn't enjoy that either. I ended up just not playing. I didn't start playing rugby or take it seriously until Junior Cup when I was in second year."
Looking at how far Murray has come since those days, it is remarkable to think that for someone who struggled to get into the game, he is now widely regarded as one of the top scum-halves in both European and world rugby.
Thinking back to the time when he decided to give rugby a proper go, Murray can see plenty of similarities between a cup day in school and a Heineken Cup day nowadays.
"I was a late starter, but I've said it all along, schools rugby is huge," he said. "When a cup day comes around, the school is buzzing. That's where you get your first little taste of pressure. Everyone is watching you and waiting for the game – there's a lot of hype.
"Schools cup rugby is similar to loads of the games I play today, in the sense that your family and close friends are still the ones you're playing in front of. Obviously the crowd is multiplied greatly, but it's really not too dissimilar when you think about it. It gives you a good taste of what's to come in the professional game."
Having to play with students that he didn't know may not have been enjoyable at the time, but, for Murray, it served as a major development in his growth as a player.
"In first year, you're playing with your friends and you're in your comfort zone. To be pushed up to a team that you don't know many of the players, it forces you to perform outside of circumstances that you're used to.
"That happens all the time in the professional game as well. If you're picked to go on a tour for the first time and you don't know a lot of the other players, it educates you on other things that you have to take into consideration when you're playing rugby."
Schools rugby has grown massively in recent years, but listening to a recent Lions player drawing comparisons between last summer's tour and his schools cup days is fascinating.
Murray is a firm believer that students should play as many sports as possible. Having played hurling, football and soccer, he maintains that each sport brings out different skills that enhance your skills-set as a whole.
"It never entered my head to play professional rugby when I was growing up. When you're that age, it's all about playing and having a laugh. All I did was play as many sports as I could and then eventually I had to choose my favourite one.
"With certain players it just happens – you're forced down the path of playing rugby. A lot of people don't know it's coming, but it can happen fast and that was the case with me.
"The main thing I would try and get across to young guys playing sport in school is to make sure you're enjoying it. When you find out what you're good at and what you can get the most out of, there's a natural progression there."
In 2006, Murray got his first taste of Senior Cup rugby when he was involved in St Munchin's winning squad. Playing back-up to former Munster academy scrum-half Paul Rowley wasn't exactly difficult as in Murray's own words, "I simply wasn't good enough back then."
Despite being part of the squad, that campaign doesn't hold many good memories for him.
"I remember going to games and Paul went down injured a couple of times – I couldn't think of anything worse than to go on to the pitch and replace him. I was that nervous.
"I don't really have much of a connection with that team. It was great to be part of the squad and all, but, at the end of the day, you want to play.
"It was the same last summer with the Lions. It was brilliant to become a Lion, but my goal was always to play in the Tests and that's how you really feel part of the team."
The 2006 St Munchin's Senior Cup team is still talked about to this day and every so often Murray is given a gentle reminder of it by his current team-mate Keith Earls.
"I remember in the quarter-finals against Rockwell, we were well ahead and John Broderick didn't even give me a run. I'll forever hold that against him! Surely he could have given me a few minutes just to make sure I got a medal," he said with a grin.
"A couple of the subs did get medals when we were queuing up, but I wasn't cute enough to skip ahead. Earlsy is always slagging me that I never got a medal that year!"
Many people who followed Murray's early career have questioned why he gave up place-kicking. An accomplished goal-kicker for St Munchin's, Garryowen and the Munster 'A' side, he reveals that he has, in fact, been putting in a lot of practice in the last year.
"I put it to the side when I broke into the senior side. I started concentrating on improving my skills as a scrum-half," he said. "Last summer in Australia I did a good bit with Neil Jenkins (Lions kicking coach) and something clicked in me that I need to keep it up. I think it's something that can only add value to me as a player.
"You never know when you're going to be called upon to take a kick, so it's important to be prepared."
With new academy-like structures constantly being introduced to schools rugby, Murray insists that Irish rugby has benefited greatly.
"You only have to look at all of the Irish provinces in Europe this season. There's a lot of young players involved and all of the teams have done quite well. That reflects well on the underage system throughout the country and especially on how players are developed in school."
As this year's cup campaigns draw ever closer, Murray is only too aware of the pressure that players will be under. Pressure can lead to mistakes even at the very top level and the Munster scrum-half is no stranger to that.
His costly error against Racing Metro in last season's Heineken Cup still haunts him, but he maintains that it has made him a better player.
"Looking back, at the time I thought it was the worst thing in the world to happen me," he said. "We ended up getting to the semi-finals, but I still have a little thing in the back of my head that says, had we beaten Racing, we might have had an easier path to the final.
"It still annoys me, but I'm glad it happened to me early in my career and I think it's made me a better player mentally.
"Young players should always remember that mistakes happen to absolutely everyone and once you deal with them in the right way, it will only make you stronger."
Heeding advice from someone who has achieved so much in such a short space of time is sure to inspire many young hopefuls who are about to embark on their own Senior Cup journey.