Tuesday 24 April 2018

Conor Murray eager to extend his proud French record

Conor Murray is relishing what will be a tough test against France next week. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray is relishing what will be a tough test against France next week. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It sounds like some sort of team formation - 3-2-2 - but in this case it represents Conor Murray's profit-and-loss account from his French engagements. Hard to believe the first of 55 caps came less than six years ago, slipping in under the radar on a summer's night in Bordeaux. And equally hard to credit if, like the bulk of those who have played for Ireland, your experience of playing France was a negative one. To have lost just two of those seven Tests puts him in a happy minority.

It's hardly coincidence that his record in this fixture is good, for invariably he gives value for money in these games where, in the last five, the average difference between the sides is just over five points. Remarkably he has faced off against seven different French nines in that time. Of that group you'd pick Morgan Parra, Maxime Machenaud and Dimitri Yachvili as the podium three. And you'd put Murray ahead of them.

In Dublin on Saturday he will likely face a new opponent in Baptiste Serin, a slick-looking 22-year-old who made his Championship debut just a fortnight ago, in Twickenham.

"Yeah he looks good," Murray says. "I've played against Machenaud a good few times, a really good player and playing well this year, so for Serin to be ahead of him . . . that's a big coup for him. I don't know much about him - obviously we've had a look at him on tape, and whatever, and he looks a really confident nine: quite a French nine who likes to boss his pack and seek out opportunities for himself."

Lots of Murray's predecessors played against opponents in this fixture who enjoyed silver service. The French pack would be rolling forward in waves and the scrum-half would be just directing the flow.

Over their two games in the Six Nations so far France have been very competitive, and no one would argue if they were two wins from two. And there is about this pack a touch of the French units of old. In which case they would love to run over the top of Conor Murray.

He has been in the news lately, clearly agitated by the dangerous focus put on him by Glasgow in a Champions Cup tie. The downside of him highlighting it was that it opened wider the door to more of the same. Would you believe it, Scotland followed up at Test level a few weeks later with a less dangerous but equally opportunistic focus on the Ireland scrum-half. Fair enough.

"Because there was talk about it during the week I knew there'd be something, or there might be something," he says. "It was in my head not to respond to it because I probably responded to it . . . not wrongly against Glasgow, but probably a bit much. I probably got a bit too animated about it, or whatever. It was in my head just to keep playing and get on with it because it's wasted energy on the pitch. If you want to deal with something afterwards in terms of bringing it up with the ref or your coach bringing it up with the officials, then that's the way to do it."

He sat out training on Friday at the open session in Monaghan because of tightness in his adductor. You need to treat with caution any testimony surrounding an athlete's fitness, but Murray swears he will be on the field for tomorrow's session in Carton House.

And that training will ramp up as the week goes on because the effect of the loss in Murrayfield puts Ireland in cup rugby mode. So including the bounce back against Italy they need four wins in a row to have a chance of the title, a sequence they haven't put together since the 2015 World Cup.

"I haven't thought about it," Murray says of the run needed. "It wouldn't bother me in the slightest - we have the hunger here to go the distance. We're disappointed the way we started the tournament, and we bounced back last week. I think we played really well and we have the ability to go and do that, to get those kind of results, but it's week on week.

"We're highly motivated and really hyped up for this game next weekend. There's an opportunity to be within a shot of winning this Championship - we know that, that's there, that's what we're striving towards. And how do you look after that? You've heard me say it loads of times: look after next weekend and the French and try your best to beat them, and we'll reassess and go again. We're really well looked after here, rested well and ready to go."

The break from Camp Carton was welcome. On Friday in Monaghan, in grim enough conditions, there was a carnival atmosphere in a club celebrating its 40th anniversary. The players seemed as energised by it all as the hordes who turned up.

"It's nice to get out somewhere new, out of your usual routine and experience somewhere new," Murray says. "With the locals coming out it's always eye-opening to see much it means to people because we're kind of locked away in Carton for the majority of our time. So to come out here and have a chat with some of the locals and a take a few pictures and mingle with them, I think it's great. It shows how big Irish rugby is at the moment and how much support we have. It's great."

It will be better again if his condition improves, and if Ireland pick up where they left off in Rome.

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