Sunday 22 April 2018

Murray is ready to put best foot forward for Reds

Ireland scrum-half willing to show kicking skills at No 10 – if needed

Munster and Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray
Munster and Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE poor table is taking a beating. Conor Murray is talking about playing at out-half, but he's knocking on wood that he won't need.

JJ Hanrahan's injury has opened a door that the Ireland scrum-half wasn't expecting and one he might still not have to enter. It's good to be ready, all the same.

If it happens and it comes off, Munster will have a debt of gratitude to Neil Jenkins, who encouraged the 24-year-old to take his kicking tee out of cold storage last summer.

It has been a quirk of recent warm-ups that Murray has joined the kickers in lining up shots at goal.

Some wags wondered if he was boosting his CV for an eventual move to France, where goal-kicking is part of a No 9's bread and butter. But it was a skill that he had let slide and took up again this season after encouragement from the former Wales maestro on the Lions tour.


This week, he has been slipping in and out of the out-half channel in training in preparation for the worst along with Johne Murphy.

All being well, Ian Keatley's health will persevere through the 160 minutes required against Connacht and Toulon, but, touch wood, Murray says he's ready and willing if needed.

"It's obviously not my preferred position, but I played there at U-20 in the inter-pros against Ulster at Thomond Park and managed to play the whole game there," he said.

"It was a good experience, but our game plan at Munster involves a lot of changing between No 9 and No 10.

"When we do go wide, I mightn't be fast enough to get there, so I just push the No 10 into No 9. So, I have had a bit of experience there. Just training the last few days, I've had a few reps and a few chats with Keats and JJ to understand what they look for.

"You mightn't think it is that different, but it is another world out there, so you just chat to the backs outside you and what they are looking for from you.

"That's the last few days, just trying to feel a bit comfortable there and if I am called on to go in there this week, then great, it will be an opportunity to put a positive slant on the game, you know.

"If I'm asked to go in there, I'll have no problem going in there."

Running the game is one thing he'll have to master, but the goal-kicking is something he has handled before – even if he didn't have 35,000 Toulonnais baying for his blood at the time.

He last kicked regularly for Garryowen in the All-Ireland League, while he shared the duties with Ian Madigan, Ian McKinley and Andrew Burke for the Ireland U-20s.

"In Australia during the Lions tour, I was working with Jenkins and he did a bit and said it was something I should keep working on. He obviously saw something there," he recalled, saying he was about a 70-80pc operator at club level.

"I enjoy doing it. I enjoy going out and place-kicking and challenging myself. So I've been doing that with Munster with (skills coach) Ian Costello. We usually go out on a Wednesday and kick with Keats and JJ. I've been doing it before games as well.

"It's something I'm trying to get back into my game and it's something that Jenkins and a few of the other lads say I should keep up, because, obviously, it would be another string to my bow.

"Of course, I'd prefer if Keats didn't get injured and I could play at No 9 and, hopefully, I'll be picked at No 9.

"If I am chosen to be there, I just need more reps and ideally I'd get a little game-time there this week just to get that feeling of being at 10 in a game with that added pressure on you.

"If I am called upon and something happens (to) Ian, then I have to make sure I'm really ready for that – which I am doing this week."

While the injury to Hanrahan means Penney has needed to reach for some drastic contingencies this week, Toulon were able to replace Jonny Wilkinson with Matt Giteau against Leinster, as Freddie Michalak watched on from the stand.


It is a major contrast in resources, one which has the European champions at eight-point favourites 10 days out from the game.

That would ordinarily have suited Munster who spent years thriving as underdogs, but, as a test-winning Lion and a Six Nations winner, Murray believes this team can produce when it's expected of them.

"We're probably cursed by the old traditional view of Munster," he said.

"That's the outside opinion of Munster at the moment and I think it's the traditional view people have of Munster, that we're going to be underdogs and try to hang in there and hope for a result.

"I know Toulon are a fantastic side, they have superstars, but within our squad at the moment we rate each other really highly and on our day we can beat anyone. We have a confidence and, as usual, there are going to be thousands of Munster fans over there and there's going to be an underdog tag with that, so it's going to be a huge occasion.

"I think we have a great team at the moment. We have a great pack; they've stood up again this year and made life for us, especially in the half-backs, really enjoyable.

"I've played a lot of games where I've been on the front foot and it's been an armchair ride. So I think the quality in our squad is right up there with what was there before."

The experience against Clermont last season will help. Munster weathered the storm in Montpellier and finished the game with regret having battled back to give themselves a chance.

"I don't know if we thought we could win that game going into it and, looking back, we had a lot of clear-cut opportunities where we could have scored tries and we lost by six points," Murray explained.

"Obviously, we could have won it and now we're another year down the track and there's a better sense of confidence within the squad that we actually can go down and do a job there.

"It's nice that the game is out of their fortress, which gives us a little bit of an advantage I would say."

Leinster wilted at that fortress and handed Toulon the initiative.

While the European champions played exceptionally well, there is a frustration among the Blues that they handed them the initiative and if Munster can secure their own ball and run their own game they can be much closer.

"Leinster were right to say that they were disappointed with their game," Murray added. "Their missed tackle count was really high, like nothing they had during the year and that was always going to give Toulon front-foot ball.

"If you give them easy yards like that they are going to get in behind you and score easy points, so defence is obviously going to be a huge ask, but we have Axel there working on that and it is going to be a huge area for us.

"Then, talking about Leinster not getting their own game right, their line-out malfunctioned and that meant they had no platform to launch any plays off. They are a top-class team, so most of your areas will have to be in good shape."

The preparation continues with Saturday's inter-provincial against Connacht and Munster will hope to give Murray some sort of run at No 10 if the game allows.

They'll hope not to have to use him, but if needed he's ready and, what's more, he's confident they can deliver on their big day in Marseille as well.

Irish Independent

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