Sunday 22 April 2018

Murray finding his voice and taking command as fast-tracked rookie becomes seasoned regular

Conor Murray in action during
training ahead of today's game
against Italy
Conor Murray in action during training ahead of today's game against Italy
David Kelly

David Kelly

In all the rush to praise the Irish management for being at the cutting edge of player evolution, Conor Murray reminded us this week that, in fact, his rapid progression owes more to his outgoing Munster coach.

After all, Tony McGahan was far quicker than his erstwhile boss, Declan Kidney, in ascertaining that Tomas O'Leary's sudden decline in form was irreversible last year; hence Murray's rapid promotion from the Munster academy to World Cup starter with Ireland.

This time last year, Kidney was still keeping the faith, despite the sadly visible struggles of O'Leary to recreate his Grand Slam form; his selection of the Corkman in Rome was one of the reasons Ireland very nearly succumbed to the battling Italians.

Kidney gave O'Leary every chance to compete for a World Cup start, but even his loyal coach couldn't argue against the grim realities of a man desperately scrambling for form.

Now O'Leary is poised to flee Ireland altogether, bereft of a central contract, while Murray seems slated to maintain his climb up the pay scale; his next contract negotiations will be intriguing.

By then, the man who gave him his big break will be gone.

"I don't know how many players we used, was it 50-something players we used in the Magners League last season?" asks Murray (it was 51, and 36 were former academy players).

"A good few of us got our first (Munster) caps last year and I think the majority of us did quite well. Tony always backs me and that was important.

"You can see that the lads are still in the squads, and even up here there are a few of us that have managed to stay in the Ireland squad.

"So the academy is the same as any other academy.

"Obviously we wouldn't have as big a player base as some of the other academies, but once the players are in there and have learned their trade they generally do quite well."

Aside from the deluded minority who expect Munster to roll over opponents without breaking sweat on a weekly basis, serious observers of the rugby scene will in time recognise McGahan's legacy, even if some youth promotion was forced by a slew of injuries.

Murray's progress can be traced further back, of course, to his schooling in Limerick's St Munchin's, where the irrepressible John Broderick retains a keen interest in the youngster.

"He was a great motivator," Murray says of the current Young Munster coach.

"I had him the whole way up through school and he motivated me, told me about the types of players I would be coming up against from other schools."

And then there was the club scene -- he is a Garryowen man -- retaining its relevance in the development of players notwithstanding officialdom's shameful preference for it to wither away on the vine.

"The club game was a big, big part of my development," Murray says.

"It is just game time and quite a high standard. You hear a lot about the English Championship -- I'd say if the majority of our teams went over there they would do quite well.

"It just gives you game time to get better and sort certain things out that you don't get to do in training.

"The intensity is not there in training to try and do it. You're just getting game time and learning how good you are and backing yourself at what you're good at.

"Obviously, those weekends when you're not playing with Munster, the clubs take you in and give you game time to keep your fitness up, so it's crucial."

When he arrived in the Munster academy, having been honed so craftily with school and club, the traditional heartlands of the Irish game, Murray was immediately identified as a top prospect.

The pressure, as his future development clearly attests, did not prove much of a burden for the rising star.

"It is just an understanding of what is required of you. Obviously I came into the academy and I was quite light so I had to try and gain weight. You talk to different coaches and they tell you exactly what you need to do.

"There are just no excuses not to do it, everyone in the academy does it. You have all the structures around you to get the best out of yourself. I was put into that structure and I got through it."

From his first day, he could sketch the map of his progress.

"When I got that first-year offer in the academy, I just sensed that being a rugby professional was for me. That has been the goal.

"Once you're in the academy you are among the senior players, you can see the senior players at training and you want to be there.


"That really inspired me when I got in there."

Now he is of their ilk, although for less than a year now all told. All the same, he is no more the rookie.

"From talking to them and training with them you realise that they need you to talk," he stresses.

"They need you to be their eyes in certain areas and when you're attacking and stuff like that, driving them around the place. They are working so hard that they need to hear a voice and react to that.

"Coming into scrum-half when I was 16-17, I didn't really understand how to play the position properly. I suppose that just came as I progressed."

Some argue that that swift progression has caught up with him, with criticisms of his box-kicking and the snail's pace he played the game at last time out against Wales at the Aviva being aimed at his direction.

Pointing to the difference between the provincial and national systems, Murray says that his partnership with Jonny Sexton is improving all the time.

"I'm getting to know him a lot better," he says.

That he had probably never met Sexton a year ago shows just how far Murray has come in such a short time.

Here's hoping his lightning progress can become the rule in Irish rugby, not the exception.

Irish Independent

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