Conor Murray goes toe-to-toe with Ben Youngs in Lions shoot-out at Thomond Park
As befits a venue of thrilling resonance, Thomond Park has played host to several dramatic productions down the years, the latest of which will see what Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs describes as a potential ‘showdown’ between himself and his opposite number at Munster, Conor Murray, in the Champions Cup.
There will be many other elements feeding into the theatrical mix on Saturday afternoon, be it the return of Manu Tuilagi to Leicester’s starting ranks or the recall of a host of in-form Ireland internationals to the line-up of the Irish province.
The emotional carry-over from the tragic passing of former Munster coach and player Anthony Foley is also, rightly enough, still in the Limerick air. Yet the stand-out play-within-the-play is the clash between the two prime contenders for the Lions No 9 shirt, both in form, both pivotal to their country’s success in the autumn and both at the heart of their team’s push to progress in this tightest of pools.
There are no finer scrum-halves in the world game at the moment than the pair on view in Limerick. “I feel fresh coming out of November when usually you can be sore and tired,” said Murray, relishing what lies ahead. “There is a lot of history between our two teams.”
The scrum-halves are different in type, with Murray the more physically dominant and Youngs the sharper on the break. They have fine kicking games, directing and controlling play to telling effect. Murray was one of the architects of Ireland’s stunning victory over the All Blacks in Chicago while Youngs has been the catalyst of so much that has been good in England’s play over the past month, leaner, fitter, faster, forever busy, forever dangerous.
Both men bring those standards into this fixture. Youngs is certainly aware of the significance of the occasion as well as of the yardstick that will be used by many to gauge Lions’ prospects.
“We probably both feel we are performing well and that makes for a good showdown,” said Youngs. “I know Conor well from the 2013 Lions tour. He’s different to me, a bigger lad, with a fine kicking game, a solid all-round 9. Of course half-backs tend to play a big part in games just because you are involved so much. A lot of it, though, is dictated by what happens in the forward pack. If we can get on the front foot there, get an edge, then it will be up to me and (fly-half) Freddie (Burns) to put us in the right parts of the field.”
As Murray pointed out, the two teams have previous in Europe, Leicester claiming the second of their back-to-back titles in 2002 by beating Munster 15-9 in Cardiff, courtesy of some on-field finagling from Neil Back, and the Tigers’ then taking one of the proudest home records in the competition when seeing off Munster 13-6 in a pool game in January 2007 - Munster’s first-ever loss at Thomond Park in a European tie. Leicester won again there last season.
Munster, of course, have had their own rich success with two titles, and even though they have been in the relative wilderness in recent years, there is a sense that they are on their way to reclaiming some of that status again.
“Munster are a proud European rugby side but we have managed to get results when we have been there,” said Youngs. “This is another chance for us to go to Thomond and really take it to them, an approach that has served us well in the past, not wait to see what they do. We have got to attack the game.”
Youngs will be at the forefront of that charge, dictating the pace. Munster and Murray have other notions. Leicester's backs coach - former Ireland full-back Geordan Murphy - has played with both players.
“After Ireland beat New Zealand you probably wouldn’t have argued with Conor being favourite for the Lions’ starting role,” said Murphy, a Leicester try-scorer in that 2007 win. “He was one of the form 9s in the world, a big, strong man with great distribution. But Ben’s subsequent performances have put him right up there too. It is going to be very interesting.”
So thinks, too, the man who matters when it comes to deciding who starts for the Lions against New Zealand in the first Test in Auckland on June 24th - head coach Warren Gatland. Youngs vied with Welshman Mike Phillips for the starting role in 2013, only for Murray to force his way on to the bench for the decisive third Test in Sydney behind Phillips.
"An integral part of Ireland going well has been Conor Murray,” said Gatland in midweek. "He is one of the most improved players (in home nations) over the last three of four years. He went to Australia in 2013 with the Lions probably as number three but by the end, if there had been a fourth Test, he'd have been starting because of the way he had continued to improve. I'm probably doing him no favours in saying this because if I was up against him now, you'd want to knock him off his perch."
That is very much in Youngs’s remit, for club and then for country, with Ireland and England meeting on the final weekend of the 2017 Six Nations Championship. But first, a European encounter full of devil and intrigue, a throwback to the way that Thomond Park always was.