Stepping up with confidence
From fourth choice at Munster to the Lions, Conor Murray has made rapid progress, says Brendan Fanning
The last time Munster played at lunchtime in the Heineken Cup was also the last time they lost a match. It may seem like another season altogether, for five wins on the trot have filled the space between then and now, plus the great expanse of time that has been taken up with the before, during and afters of the Ireland versus New Zealand game.
We are still in the same time zone however as that grey October day in Edinburgh, when most of that city were unaware that Munster were in town, just as Munster seemed unaware that it was Saturday and they were supposed to be at work.
There was a Keystone Cops feel to the way they tripped over themselves and barged the door open for the home team to walk through. Afterwards coach Rob Penney wondered – not in so many words exactly – if Munster's strong Pro12 form had convinced them they could turn up in costume and still get the last laugh.
"I don't know what happened," Conor Murray says, recalling the episode when all that was missing was a man on the public address system crashing big cymbals together. "How ever the week went – and it shouldn't really matter how the week went – it all goes down to the 80 minutes you play at the weekend. And maybe lads were a little bit complacent because we'd beaten them twice the year before and got a bonus point in one of them. Maybe our heads were wrong. Probably just a sharpening up and a few people got a little bit of a bollocking. Since then it's been going quite well."
Yes it has, for Murray even more than the team. There are four distinct phases to the career of Conor Murray. Pre-Christmas 2010, when he was fourth in line behind Tomás O'Leary, Peter Stringer and Duncan Williams, and getting the odd look-in when one of the others left a door open. Then there was Post-Christmas that season, when there was a draught running through the place and he raced into position for nine matches, finishing as first choice and with a Pro12 medal secured in the final against Leinster. Next stop would be as one of an unfeasibly large crew of five scrumhalves in Declan Kidney's preliminary World Cup squad, and before you knew it he was going to the show.
Phase Three came in the Six Nations last year when Johnny Sexton was banjaxed and Kidney was doing the unthinkable and putting the Ronan O'Gara statue on a shelf in the spare room. Suddenly Murray found himself babysitting Paddy Jackson and looking like he was working extra hard to avoid any mishaps.
"Yeah I've thought about this and there probably was a bit of that, but also when you were playing with Rog outside you and with Johnny being a more experienced player you probably felt that they were going to make all the calls and they were going to steer the ship," he says. "But then when they weren't there I probably felt a bit more comfortable or a bit more confident in making decisions myself and going for things myself. Whether Paddy was there (or not) it just happened to be like that. I was a little bit more prepared to back myself a bit more."
And Phase Four? We are just settling in with seat belts fastened. Murray is now a Test Lion and not just a senior player for Munster but an automatic pick for Joe Schmidt as well.
The Lions experience could have been a whole lot different. At least some of us thought so when his pre-tour rating as third of three was confirmed before the announcement of the team for the First Test.
"No, I don't think so," he says, maintaining there were no clouds in his world at the time. "All along I think I played some of my best rugby on tour, that I hadn't played before. I just enjoyed it. Like, part of me was: 'You're on a Lions tour, just make sure you enjoy it and get the most out of it'. And I think that helped my game. It allowed me to relax and play my natural game. That in turn allowed me to play well. I had a few chats with Rob (Howley) and he said: 'You're quite close; you're playing really well. Just make sure the next midweek game you're pushing again'. And eventually I got in there."
In the modern day Lions lexicon the word 'eventual' doesn't feature, for there isn't time. What Murray did however was make sure he was pickable when Mike Phillips was not an option for the Second Test. For someone who had been slotted firmly into the bronze medal position, that's not as easy as it sounds. The experience has given him what every player puts at the top of their wishlist.
"Confidence, number one. Being selected was great first and foremost when it was announced. It was an unbelievable feeling for you and your family and your granddad who played and watched you growing up. And then you get into a rugby environment, whether it be club level or a Lions tour, you're in a group with a load of lads who you get to know and suddenly your competitive instinct takes over: you want to be picked; you want to play the games. I wasn't going to take a back seat.
"I did enjoy the tour – it was unbelievable – but if you weren't picked in those Test games . . . like for the First Test when you were left out it wasn't a great feeling at all because you knew there was 23 lads going to play on a huge stage and you weren't going to be able to do it. Your competitiveness takes over, no matter what level, I think, anyway. And confidence is definitely the one thing I took from it, just to go to that next level. As a player you need that mental step."
If we were still in Australia you would be saying Murray is 'in a good space right now'. He will be 25 in April, and getting close to his prime. Outhalves like playing with him – he had game time with eight of them in 2013 between Munster, Ireland and the Lions – because he takes his share of responsibility, and his pass is long, accurate and quicker than punters might think. The standard criticism is that he has a pre-pass step, a crease that needs ironing. He laughs at that, and the notion that Rob Howley was the man who straightened it out.
"I don't know how long I could talk about this," he says. "We were playing a brand of rugby where the ball was quick. We were blowing past the ball – you weren't having to stop and take it out where you'd naturally have to take a step. I'm sure there were times on the Lions tour where you did have to take a step and I'm sure every nine in the world does it. Maybe it's because I'm tall people take more notice when I do it."
His kicking game? It was a bit loose against the All Blacks, but generally is very good. What he provides ahead of any other scrumhalf in province, country, or indeed in the home nations beside Mike Phillips, is a physicality that is really useful going forward or back.
Some teams try to isolate smaller scrumhalves by dinking balls over the top of the defensive line and then emptying him when he collects – or, better still, beating him in the air. Given Schmidt's fascination with dominating the skies, players of Murray's stature are appealing.
And of course he knows this. You wonder then, when he was one of the last down for breakfast on the morning the team was announced to play Australia last month, did he take it for granted he would be in it. When Eoin Reddan's name was read out, it woke Murray up.
"Every kind of thought is running through your mind and you're questioning why it happened or whatever, so there was a bit of worry and all sorts of thoughts came into your head," he says. "'Am I doing this wrong? Does he want me to do different things?' Had a chat with him after that. It wasn't a competition, like the Six Nations, so it was fair enough to give people a fair shot in a big game."
This suggests he expects to start every game in the Championship. When Murray first stepped up to Ireland level, in the pre-World Cup warm-ups in 2011, he was rooming with Paul O'Connell. The ageing second row described the snapper as having a quiet confidence about himself: enough to reassure you that he was up to the job without turning you off with too much attitude.
Like any balancing act it can be tricky to maintain. The better he gets as a player – and by the 2015 World Cup he should be in the world-class category – the harder he will have to work on it.
Currently he is doing pretty well in what has been a very challenging year. His on-field contribution to Munster's impressive stats of nine wins from 11 games has been limited to four matches. Two of them however featured significant steps forward. The wins over Leinster in Thomond Park and Glasgow in Scotstoun, at either end of October, were results that would probably have gone south last season when the team was so busy running east and west across the park.
They have found some direction now, a shift that began last season with the approach taken against Harlequins. You'd still wonder if Munster have the personnel to deliver anything in the short term on the European stage, regardless of their battle plan, but Murray is convinced.
"I don't think we're anywhere near playing at full potential," he says. "We have scraped by a few games where we've played poorly. We've won a few games where we've played well and then we've won a few games where we've been iffy. They're the kind of mental edges that we've gained this year. Being able to close out that Glasgow game when it was tight; that Leinster game when we didn't play particularly well.
"We're winning, which is great, but our game probably isn't where we want it to be. Once that (consistency) comes, and I think it will come as the season progresses. We've seen glimpses of it. We just need to make sure we add it all together and get it for an 80-minute performance. You're never going to be the finished article, we're nowhere near that yet, but there's definitely potential there."
Perpignan won't be co-operative today but neither will they derail a train that is chugging along in the right direction. That threat will come in the return leg next weekend. For the moment, Murray and Munster need to make it a working lunch.
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, S Archer, D O'Callaghan, P O'connell, P O'Mahony (capt), J Coughlan, S Dougall. Replacements: D Casey, J Cronin, BJ Botha, B Holland, CJ Stander, C Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, D Hurley
Perpignan: J Hook (capt); J Michel, T Benvenuti, W Votu, S Guitone; C Lopez, T Ecochard; S Taofifenua, R Terrain, P Ion, L Charteris, G Vila, JP Perez, J Purll, A Strokosch. Replacements: M Delonca, K Pulu, JB Custoja, S Vahaamahina, D Duvenage, T Allan, D Leo, R Haughton
Referee: G Garner (England)
Munster v Perpignan,
Sky Sports 2, 12.45