Monday 11 December 2017

Conor Murray emerges as outstanding candidate for Lions captaincy

An impressive Conor Murray sidesteps a tackle during Ireland's Six Nations match against France at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images
An impressive Conor Murray sidesteps a tackle during Ireland's Six Nations match against France at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Analysis: David Kelly

The momentum of a match sometimes possesses a mood and a melody all of its own. And as the weather changes, so too the game's tempo.

The conditions, as participants can reliably be depended upon to remind us all, are the same for both teams. So something must make the difference. The band must strike a different tune.

France tried to whistle a concerto for the most part, relying on occasional flashes of individual brilliance. Ireland performed a symphony; this was a day that demanded cohesion and coercion in concert, not in solo.

Our visitors, at times transporting us ever so briefly to the days of Blanco or Rives or Lafond or Paparemborde, possessed poetry in their souls and passion in their hearts but not enough prose in their heads. Ireland know just when to apply enough of all these ingredients to prosper; they, too, have individuals whose influence is key but they only thrive with the support of those around him.

Nonetheless, one wonders what might have occurred had these sides swapped half-backs; had the skilful alacrity of the French pairing instead wore green, the mood music may have struck a dissonant chord.

France, quite possibly, may have won. Instead, their impatience and impetuous nature betrayed them.

Ireland's twin conductors held the key to an absorbing, relentless Test match which forced Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray to delve deftly into different repertoires, often suddenly, in what was ultimately a masterly display of calm, consummate control.

That one half of this increasingly influential double act was only returning to action following a month-long absence rendered their influence even more admirable.

When Sexton was replaced, the contest was done; to some folks, it has often seemed that the out-half has needed to be accompanied by a slew of medics when removed from the Test arena these days.

On Saturday, when his number was called, he sprinted from the fray as if in particularly urgent need to spend a penny. He's back.

This pair now stand apart as leading contenders to partner each other on the Lions tour.

And, with a series of unconvincing forward options lined up as prospective captains, none as unconvincing as the English incumbent, the Munster man's credentials for the honour grow stronger by the minute.

It was coming on for 62 minutes when he delivered a grubber to the corner of such delectable precision that one had to double-check just to make sure it wasn't Sexton himself.

"Ah, a lucky bounce," he smiles but you make your own luck; his action was more measured than that and, after a half where he and his mate weaved the baton with their hands, now had come the time to direct matters with the feet.

The only doubts about Murray's captaincy candidacy may be that he is viewed as not vocal enough; it is for Warren Gatland to decide whether quietly impressive performance trumps breast-beating bluster.

"Conor is really quiet," concedes Schmidt.

"He does not impose his personality or doesn't really say a lot in the group but he is incredibly respected within the group. We want players' actions to have such a volume that we don't need to hear them speaking.

"And he turns up the volume for the big games without a doubt. We wouldn't rely on one particular talisman because you start to revolve too much around one person and that is too much pressure for the person."

Except Murray - nor indeed Sexton - seem likely to wilt under the pressure.

Next month comes the visit of England and Ben Youngs, with whom he has had some terrific tussles in recent times; beforehand, there awaits the challenge with Rhys Webb in Cardiff. Both games will decide the Championship and be hugely significant in terms of Lions selection.

The "quiet" man Murray is quietly bullish about his own form.

"I felt good today, felt we had a good week's training and things came off. We needed territory tonight and yeah, I am pleased with my game.

"We had our captain's run and it was really sunny so we were expecting a different type of game. You show up and you manage to play well in conditions like that is always satisfying.

"It's the pack up front and the guys who came on laid that platform. In a game like that they just want the ball put in front of them and be able to attack a lineout or a scrum for the opposition in their 22."

That is what the Lions will require, too, in addition to his sniping, try-scoring prowess - nobody ran more in the game aside from, predictably Sexton.

"I am happy with my game," Murray chirps. After this sweetest of symphonies, music to Gatland's ears.

Irish Independent

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