Friday 18 January 2019

Murray taking the World Cup in his stride

Conor has the potential and attitude to become Ireland’s best scrum-half for 30 years

Conor Murray has
had a meteoric rise
to his career. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray has had a meteoric rise to his career. Photo: Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

IT is a statistic that bears constant repeating -- Ireland have not had a Lions scrum-half since Colin Patterson and John Robbie went to South Africa in 1980.

Tomas O'Leary was selected but ruled out with injury but that's the closest we have come, which is remarkable when you consider how many Lions scrum-halves Wales (six), England (six) and Scotland (five) have managed to produce in that time.

Given that scrum-half anomaly in Irish rugby, it's no wonder there is such excitement surrounding the rapid rise of Conor Murray.

Between O'Leary, Peter Stringer and (the talented but injury-prone) Duncan Williams, Munster have an embarrassment of riches at No 9 and forcing his way to the top of that pile speaks volumes for Murray's ability and determination -- not to mention the progressive policy of Munster coach Tony McGahan.

And while there is always scope for improvement, there is no doubting that Murray has the game to succeed at international level -- ticking all the scrum-half boxes of size, passing, kicking and breaking.

Grateful

Whether it happens at this tournament is another matter, given the greater experience and good form of his Leinster rivals Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss, but Ireland should be grateful Murray is playing rugby at all, for it was not something that interested him in his early days.

"In Garryowen, I didn't really like rugby when I was younger," says the 22-year-old. "All my friends were playing it and that was the only reason I went out. I didn't enjoy the training or the games but it quickly changed when I got to St Munchin's.

"I was big into hurling and football up until about 18. I'm from Patrickswell (outside Limerick city), hurling is huge there. I played loads of football in primary school and afterwards but hurling was my main one when I was younger.

"Rugby began to take over when I went to secondary school. I had to give up hurling then when I started getting on Munster underage sides. Patrickswell weren't too happy with me but they're really supportive now. Before I left they put up a big 'Good Luck Conor' sign in the village."

Given his 6'2", 14-stone dimensions and speed off the mark, Murray could have easily ended up further out the backline, or even in the back-row, and former PBC Cork pupil and teacher Declan Kidney has reason to be grateful to his alma mater's greatest rivals CBC Cork for Murray's positioning.

"I moved to number nine in fourth year in school and the only reason I did it is because I had a friend from our summers in Derrynane in Kerry called Chris Nolan who played nine for Christians and I just wanted to try it out because he was going on about how cool it was.

"He played Irish Schools as well, so I was kind of jealous of him and I tried it out. We used to always play tip rugby on the beach in Kerry, so I tried it down there and when I went back to Munchin's I was playing Bowen Shield (U-16) and I said it to the coach and he threw me in and I managed to stay there."

As Kidney's regular first-choice since 2008, O'Leary was widely expected to be in the squad ahead of Murray, right up to the final warm-up defeat to England. And Murray, who lives with fellow Munster up-and-comers Paddy Butler, Mike Sherry, Declan Cusack and Dave Kilcoyne, admits that when the call came to tell him he would be travelling to New Zealand, he did not know how to react.

"It's only hitting me now since we arrived, the enormity of it, how big a competition it is," admits Murray. "When I found out, I had no emotion, it didn't really hit me at all. I was just at home with the lads I live with and they were physically shaking me, trying to get me excited, but it's definitely starting to hit me now.

"I was delighted to get into the squad, of course I would be. But you see other players that are over here and you know they are going to get game time and you want to train as hard as you can.

"You hear about people talking about pecking orders but I'm just going to focus on my game and do as well as I can and if I get a bit of game time, great."

One of the most striking aspects to Murray's ascent has been the absence of on-pitch nerves, a calmness he displayed for Munster towards the end of last season and replicated when making his international debut off the bench in the intimidating environs of Bordeaux.

Although he admits to experiencing nervousness in the days leading up to matches, he does not suffer when the action gets under way, nor does he feel intimidated by playing alongside Ronan O'Gara.

"You can't be intimidated by anyone on your team," stresses Murray. "Playing with him at Munster has really stood to me, he's great to play with.

"He barks at me, I bark at him but it works really well. It was a bit daunting at the start, my first game against Cardiff with Ronan at 10, but it was just great to get a game under my belt playing with him. But I enjoy playing with him, same with Jonny (Sexton), I had 20 minutes with him against England.

"Rugby isn't that different when you go up the levels, obviously it gets a bit quicker and you make quicker decisions but if your basics are good -- obviously you have to have some bit of skill to be able to play at another level -- but I find it okay. I am sure I have to be tested yet but so far, so good."

Talking up a player too soon is always perilous but Murray appears unaffected by the increasing levels of hype that surround him and he seems as comfortable with his media exposure as he is with his on-pitch duties.

Self-belief is a powerful asset in top-level sport and when it is accommodated by modesty, so much the better. Murray has come a long way in a short space of time but it is where he could end up that makes this story so compelling.

Watch this space.

Irish Independent

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