Murray not content to make up numbers
The Munster No 9 is gunning for a Test starting spot, as he tells Brendan Fanning
On an unseasonably hot day in Carton House last week, not long after a 90-minute Lions training spin where he hadn't put a foot wrong or a ball off target, Conor Murray was asked about the preamble to tour selection and to what degree it had dominated his brain.
"Yeah, it was hard all year and you're asked questions about the Lions and you kind of deflect them," he says. "But you're thinking about it most weeks and you're looking at other scrumhalves in other countries and how they're playing. You can't really control what they do or how they play so for me it was just get on with my job and play the way I play.
"I didn't try and change my game because I thought Warren (Gatland) might be looking for something different or anything like that. I play the way I play and that's it. I can't change much so I just did the best I could and hoped for the best and thankfully I got the call."
The bit about the need for change however has extra relevance to the circumstances he finds himself in now. The tour opener against the Barbarians in Hong Kong next weekend may be the only time himself and Mike Phillips are in the same match-day squad. Of the three scrumhalves in the squad, Murray and Phillips have been, fairly or not, bracketed in the class: destroyers – well, destroyers who can pass. Which leaves England's Ben Youngs in the runner class, the bloke you bring on to change the game up after Phillips or Murray have done some physical damage.
"I don't know," Murray says. "I don't know what way Warren is thinking. I got the call to come in here and I'm just trying to do my best in training and hopefully get a shot in the early games and put my best foot forward and see how I go, y'know? I don't think I can play too many tricks in my own mind. I'm just going to try and do the best I can.
"People are probably very quick to say it (his similarity to Phillips) because of height and things like that. Yeah, we probably have a few similarities in our game because we're tall and we probably do like the confrontation side of things but I think we're quite different also. We're not identical players. I don't copy him and I'm sure he doesn't copy me. We just get on with rugby the way we see it and play it the way we want to play it."
Murray's unique selling point is that he may be the best positioned of the three scrumhalves to cover both bases. It hasn't helped him that Munster invested so much time this season in dragging him from one side of the field to the other to shift the ball from a ruck in the five-metre channel. Or, by way of variation, to let him box kick.
It wasn't until the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins that we saw him given the sort of latitude that Ben Youngs gets week in, week out with Leicester: to bounce out and attack forwards close to the ruck. He has the gas to get outside people and the physicality and technique to offload it if they manage to get hands on him.
You get the impression he is itching to have a go at this game. In the way that he came from the back of the field with Ireland to quickly look comfortable as a frontrunner, so too he seems to be happy to establish himself on the same level with those tourists who have more profile than him.
"That was one of the first things Warren said when we met up – that every player in the squad was picked because they have the potential to play in a Test team and that's my mindset at the moment. When you get announced in the squad, it's brilliant, you're thinking this is unbelievable. But then when you come in here your competitive streak takes over and you want to do as best as you can and try to be the best. That's the way it is for me."
Then he reminds you that this is his third season as a pro. That this comes as a surprise illustrates how quickly he has covered the ground from playing club football with Garryowen to starting with Munster, and then Ireland.
"When you're in the academy your goal is to become a professional rugby player and make those steps," he says. "Maybe I got a break a little early. Obviously it's a dream to make this but I suppose I had not an eye on it but it was always in the pipeline. If you want to become a professional rugby player, you want to play for Ireland. Then when you get in the Irish set-up you always have a chance of making this. It's definitely a dream come true but I'm not completely in awe of it. You have your own expectations as well."
If those are realised then we'll be seeing a scrumhalf with a broader brief than he has been allowed up to now with either province or country. In which case he will be coming back from Australia a changed man