Analysis – Conor Murray played one of the best games of his career and his rugby brain deserves the credit
There is a tendency in sports and sports media to dramatise and overreact to each and every performance.
Ireland lose to Wales, and Joe Schmidt’s side are a one-dimensional outfit incapable of breaking down a Welsh side that had just been roundly defeated by Scotland a week earlier.
Beat England to deny Eddie Jones a second consecutive Six Nations title and a world record for consecutive Test wins, and we’re back to being world beaters.
There’s a little bit of truth in both theories, and there’s a large enough sample size under Joe Schmidt that you can make a case for either, but the problem is that both games were just eight days apart.
Players don’t change in eight days, there performances certainly can and our perceptions of their ability certainly will, but players ultimately remain the same.
Growth in players develops over years not weeks, but development can often be accelerated by high levels of performance in big games.
Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick against France in 2000. Dan Carter’s 33-point masterclass in the 2005 second Test against the Lions. Jonah Lomu bulldozing his way over Mike Catt and the rest of the English defence in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final in South Africa.
They're significant games in the careers of some of the game’s greatest players, and while the jury will still be out on whether Murray will be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned when all is said and done, his performance in Saturday’s second Test was one of the greatest of his career and a telling sign that he is indeed the world’s best scrum-half.
The problem with his performance on Saturday was that it has been completely overshadowed by so many of the major talking points that surrounded that game.
Sonny Bill Williams' red card. Beauden Barrett’s inconsistent goal kicking. The Johnny Sexton-Owen Farrell axis actually working. Warren Gatland winning. Steve Hansen losing. Mako Vunipola losing the plot. Sean O’Brien's citation for an alleged swinging arm on Waisake Naholo. The All Blacks losing just their second game since 2015.
There’s so many storylines and plots surrounding the one game that the ridiculousness of Scott Quinnell’s absurd pre-match address and Sky's constant glorification gets lost in the backwash.
Unfortunately so does Murray’s performance.
The Munster half-back was by no means perfect in the second Test. Some of his box kicks were uncharacteristically overcooked. He could not get the same height on his kicks that he usually finds with such ease, and he conceded one turnover and two penalties, tied for second with Sean O’Brien and Maro Itoje.
But with that said, he made winning plays. For the second time in the last eight months he caught the All Blacks napping around the fringes.
Granted, Owen Farrell and Jack McGrath had made a nuisance of themselves around the ruck, but Murray still had to exploit the gap and take advantage.
Just as he had done in Chicago last November, when the gap appeared he was gone.
TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea will feel hard done by, and they may have a case, but it’s the speed of thought of Murray that was so impressive on Saturday.
At the start of the second-half with the Lions pressing in the New Zealand 22, referee Jerome Garces awarded the Lions a penalty advantage after Brodie Retallick had failed to roll away at the ruck.
Within three seconds of Garces lifting his left arm to award the Lions a penalty advantage, Murray had already hoisted a cross field kick towards Taulupe Faletau that was only one second too early for the Lions number eight to make a reasonable challenge at the ball.
The kick was good, and could have resulted in a try if Anthony Watson had of been able to scoop up Rieko Ioane’s botched attempt at fielding, but that play more than just about any other throughout Murray’s career summed up just how quickly he is able to process what’s in front of him.
It also puts both of his tries against the All Blacks into a greater perspective. Yes, just as McGrath and Farrell helped orchestrate Saturday’s try in Wellington, CJ Stander certainly played his role in facilitating Murray’s score in Chicago, with the Munster number eight blocking out Owen Franks at the ruck.
But just as he did at Soldier Field last November, once the slightest gap had opened up, he exploited it to devastating effect.
Being a good passer is expected for any professional scrum-half. Possessing the ability to consistently place your box kicks in areas where your wingers can challenge, or where you can effectively clear the ball to safety, is a bonus.
But what separates Murray from his peers is his ability to process what's in front of him and what is around him. His rugby intelligence is staggering.
He's able to immediately assess the consequences of his decisions. The cross field kick to Faletau is justifiable because an advantage had already been awarded, but it's the ability to then execute once he’s identified where the weakness lies that really elevates his play.
There’s one thing in being able to see an opportunity and there’s another thing in being able to exploit it.
One of Murray’s greatest plays this season was a first-half try assist to Simon Zebo during Munster’s 38-0 win over the Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park.
With Munster leading 12-0 and pressing on Leicester’s line with a one-man advantage, Zebo crossed for the first try of the afternoon after a brilliant inside ball from Murray.
The Munster scrum-half skipped out from the base of a ruck and played a no look pass to Zebo who broke through Lachlan McCaffrey’s attempted tackle to score.
The move was simple in design, if you can get the A defender to move from his position at pillar, you can create a gap for a player to exploit at the base of the ruck.
The execution? Much more difficult. The try doesn’t work if Zebo gets his timing off. The receiver needs to be in sync with the ball carrier but it’s Murray’s ability to manipulate the defender that creates the space.
His rare combination of on-field intelligence and ability to execute has elevated him to the position where he is now; among, if not the best at his position in the world.
It's these two traits that effectively won the Lions the second Test on Saturday, as when the Lions botched a line-out with less than a minute to go, Murray was on hand to not only collect the rebound, but to boot the ball down the field and find touch inside the New Zealand 22.
Rieko Ioane was out of position and when he did play the ball quickly to Beauden Barrett, the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year turned the ball over with an ill-advised chip kick.
Saturday’s win over New Zealand will be viewed as one of the staple games of Murray’s career, just as Ireland v France was in 2000 for Brian O’Driscoll or the 2005 second Test against the Lions was for Dan Carter.
And while the series is still in the balance from here, pivotal performances need to be recognised amid citations, clowns and chaos.
Conor Murray is playing at the peak of his powers in the prime of his career, and much like the rugby throughout this tour, it’s been a joy to watch.