IRELAND captain Jonathan Sexton has defended his long-term half-back partner Conor Murray – claiming he is a "marked man" after a decade in which the Munster man established himself as one of the best nines in world rugby.
A collection of former players and pundits have led calls for Ulster's John Cooney to usurp his rival but new coach Andy Farrell has kept faith with Murray for the opening two Guinness Six Nations.
"The biggest problem for Conor is he’s had those games where he's ripped up the All Blacks in Chicago, but then you become a marked man," said Sexton.
"Then sometimes the space isn’t there. It’s not as simple as 'why didn’t that work? He didn’t do it this game.'
"He's played well. I watched his game against the Ospreys, he played well. He played really well last week. I’m sure he'll play well again this week.
"When those opportunities present themselves, or if they present themselves, I'm sure he’ll be ready to go. But I don’t think they did last week. Some of that was the speed of ball.
"We were playing a lot off unstructured play. You know that phase of play where we were, came out, went down the touchline, got called back for a penalty for obstruction, probably we could have scored a try there and it was pretty good play.
"Conor has scope to go and snipe. But international rugby, it doesn’t always open up. It's not like provincial rugby or even some Heineken Cup games. It's proper Test match rugby. Last week was a proper Test match."
Loose-head prop David Kilcoyne will be available to feature on the bench after successfully emerging from his return to play protocols.