Friday 19 October 2018

A big vote of confidence in Munster and Ireland

Despite worries over his mystery injury, Murray has proven he's worth every penny of new deal

Home is where the heart is: Conor Murray, here pictured training at UL last month, will be hoping for more success with Ireland and Munster. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Home is where the heart is: Conor Murray, here pictured training at UL last month, will be hoping for more success with Ireland and Munster. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

He is already, without question, Ireland's greatest scrum-half and by committing his long-term future to Munster Conor Murray can now focus on building a legacy as one of Ireland's greatest players full stop.

Only Aaron Smith rivals him in world rugby and, if he had wanted to, he could have named his price on the international market.

A controlling, goal-kicking scrum-half in the prime of his career and with 67 Ireland caps and five for the Lions he has all the experience in the world.

Of all of the players to have come on the market in recent years, Murray was the most attractive and yet he was barely even linked with a move before penning his new deal, believed to be worth more than €2m.

It is a testament to the set-ups at his province and the national team that he decided to sign up so early in the season and commit to the cause for another World Cup cycle.

Make no mistake, Murray will be extremely well rewarded for the duration of the contract he apparently signed last month, but the finances would have lined up even better abroad. The scrum-half's decision to stay is a clear vote of confidence in Munster and Ireland.

Although no one seems to be willing to hazard a guess as to when the No 9 will return to the pitch, he gave a positive update on his mystery neck injury yesterday.

"Hopefully sooner rather than later", was as firm as we got from his interview with Munster's in-house media team that accompanied the news.

During Munster's media day on Monday, Murray playfully entered the press conference room and ran back out the door laughing. The scrum-half is fully aware of all of the fuss surrounding him, but he is comfortable enough in his own skin as a leading international not to take it all too seriously.

As he alluded to himself, much has been made of his absence and his decision to limit the flow of information around it which has led to the inevitable rumours and conjecture on social media.

Clearly, the IRFU are not concerned about the star man's health as they committed fully to him being the leading scrum-half in Ireland for the next four seasons.

They didn't see Jamie Heaslip's back injury coming when they handed him a new deal in 2017, but a three-year central contract would not be handed out lightly.

Just as Murray has shown faith in Ireland, Ireland are marking the scrum-half out as a leading man in the next World Cup cycle.

At this remove, it seems highly likely that he will play in his fourth World Cup in France in 2023 regardless of who is coaching the team.

It would be no surprise to learn that Murray feels his chances of playing at that tournament and enjoying a longer career are best served by staying at home.

The IRFU's player welfare scheme will allow him to manage his minutes, to peak at the right time of the season and, with a bit of luck, prolong his career so he can get the best out of it.

Murray has worked closely with Johnny Sexton and will have monitored his half-back partner's struggles with injury since his labour-intensive first season in France.

Had he gone and taken the Top 14 euro, they would demand their pound of flesh and his Ireland time would have been diminished.

Part of him must have wondered how the other half live and been tempted to sample it.

Twice in the last few weeks he has visited his close friend Simon Zebo in Paris and having grown up watching Munster win their two Heineken Cups, it must gnaw at Murray that he has a sole Celtic League to his name in red.

He's not short of honours in the Test arena, but there is a burning desire for more reward when representing his home province.

The option was there to chase a medal at a power-house abroad, but instead he has seen enough in the current set-up to convince him that Munster are trending in the right direction.

This is the 11th season since the province claimed their second win in Europe's biggest club competition and Keith Earls is the last remaining player from that team on the books.

In the past two seasons, Munster lost Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo, but Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander stemmed the flow and Murray's decision - plus the arrival of Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne - are all positive signs for Johann van Graan.

The South African would like to have his main man on the pitch this week as he prepares to face Exeter Chiefs, particularly given the absence of Kiwi replacement Alby Mathewson, but from a long-term planning perspective this is a key part of the jig-saw.

Hardening

Murray would have been an interesting test case for the IRFU's hardening policy on overseas-based players. Since Sexton returned, no one based abroad has been picked by Schmidt.

The 29-year-old is the biggest name out of contract at the end of this season, but the union will be hopeful others will follow his example and commit to the cause.

Schmidt's future is the major issue to be resolved between now and the Six Nations but with the contracts of Seán O'Brien, Earls, Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton all up after the World Cup there is still work to do for performance director David Nucifora.

This is a big win for the Australian who has moved quickly to nail down the Murray deal before there was a chance for the rumour mill to crank into gear.

Put simply, it is a superb piece of business regardless of the price.

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