Sunday 20 October 2019

‘You could tell by people’s energy that it’s a big week’ - Conor Murray allays injury fears

Conor Murray in pensive mood at the Ireland training camp in Maynooth yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray in pensive mood at the Ireland training camp in Maynooth yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Grand Slam D-Day may still be some time away for an Ireland squad seeking to tread the same footsteps as their predecessors from 2009 but still nobody dares to speak of it.

Yesterday, however, may have proved to be an important rehearsal for the next 11 days which, quite possibly, could prove to be the most defining yet of the Joe Schmidt era.

Another D-Day, of sorts, with the acute concentration of the squad focusing on the defensive issues that have, notwithstanding a potentially record 11th win in a row this weekend, continued to gnaw and nag at a side always seeking the perfect game.

"We've been disappointed with it," confirms Conor Murray of that department rugby teams call the 'D'. "It has to be better than it was."

"I suppose each week we have a big D-Day," Joey Carbery informs us. "Today was our D-Day and we looked pretty sharp.

"We're aware of the threats Scotland are going to pose along with the likes of Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg out the back. We have to be pretty sharp this week."

His personal D-Day swiftly approaches too.

The place-kickers in the squad are chasing their own glory as well as the Six Nations championship crown.

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While everyone else will have the day off, the kickers will rock up in Lansdowne Road and, while the stakes will obviously not be as lucrative, the desire to win will remain unequalled, as one would assume of any contest involving Jonathan Sexton.


"If it makes kicking practice a little more interesting, it is always good to get a free coffee now and again," smiles Carbery. "It's good, it makes us put a bit more pressure on the kicks."

Today is the finale and the out-half duo are neck-and-neck; Murray lags well behind which may be why Carbery arrives clutching a coffee: "He owes me a few."

That his is thieved from the press gang may not reflect well on the scrum-half's generosity.

To be fair, Murray could arguably command a free drink throughout the land due to his 76th-minute penalty against Wales which effectively strengthened his side's control of this championship race.

Yet moments before, Ireland's challenge was approaching implosion.

After Wales had drawn to within just seven points as the narrow defence sieved once more, both Sexton and Murray lay prone on the turf, receiving treatment within yards of the other.

Never mind doubting whether Ireland could now win the title, the prospects of emerging unscathed from the match seemed wildly uncertain.

Both men arose but Sexton, erring from the tee all day, was not fit enough to assume the duties when Ireland's scrum penalty arrived; Murray, despite his knee collapsing beneath a sea of Welsh flesh, was now the only option left.

"We just got counter-rucked and they managed to push a player back on top of me," he recalls. "It was kind of like what happened Ben Youngs when he did his cruciate against Italy.

"I just managed to get my knee out of the ground in time so that it wasn't too serious. I've strained my knee like that before. It's sore at the time, obviously, by the way I was rolling around, but it quickly comes right."

It had to. "It's extremely difficult, under pressure and at that time of the game," agrees Carbery.

"He practises enough so when it gets to that situation all he has to rely on was his technique. That was enough to get us the points."

Murray had been landing kicks for fun before the game with cool detachment - now the heat was on.

"It's something I did as a young player but in my early days in Munster I took my eye off it to focus on other things.

"If the opportunity comes up, you have to have it in your back pocket; if you have a chance to slot one over, it's always a good thing.

"There was pressure. When it comes off it's enjoyable. I've been working with Richie Murphy over the last while to have a really solid technique to go to and focus on that rather than the situation or the crowd."

Murray does pick his moments; his only other three-pointer for his country was on that memorable day two years ago in Soldier's Field against the All Blacks when Sexton cramped up as the final quarter beckoned.

Carbery emerged to debut, nervelessly steering his side home; there was no question that he would defer to his senior team-mate then, or now.

"I'm not too sure what the chat is amongst the coaches but Richie Murphy brought me the kicking tee so I presumed it was me."

The coaches are always in charge. However, the senior players will moderate the mood.

"Conor and Johnny are more experienced and have seen a lot more," agrees Carbery, "even just to calm down certain situations and bring us back to reality sometimes." The Grand Slam may be the elephant in the room but Tadhg Furlong reminds us that such an imposing beast should be eaten piece by piece, a suggestion that may alarm animal rights' activists.

Aside from the disagreeable taste - slightly less tangy than kangaroo, we are told - and the smell, how long would it take to consume one?

Each to their own metaphoric inspiration, one supposes. Such an approach does focus the mind though, especially of those whose relative youth might not prepare them for the emerging hype surrounding the (cough) "people's game".

"I wouldn't say it's banned," says Furlong of any title title-tattle.

"It's just not talked about really. It's no different to any other week to buts or maybes. It's all task-orientated. Like, how do you eat an elephant? You eat it bite by bite, don't you? It really is game on game for us and we have a massive one this weekend."

As Murray confirms: "Coming in on Sunday, you could tell by people's energy or body language that it's a big week."

Murray, however, remains relaxed; indeed, for the last few days he has had his feet up, mindful that they may be needed for more place-kicking duties as the penultimate hurdle of this year's Grand Slam tilt fast approaches.

"There were lots of hours spent on the couch watching movies. I didn't want to be going out for a walk or anything like that."

This is not the time for slip-ups.

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