New Plymouth in the rain. Not exactly the most promising of backdrops for a new relationship but Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray have come a long way from that tricky first date as a starting half-back pairing when Ireland struggled to put away the USA.
The out-half spoiled an otherwise solid game by missing five of six kicks at goal but few could have predicted how successful these two would be together in green on the back of a World Cup opener spoiled by a drab Irish effort littered with dropped balls and missed passes.
When they line out side by side against New Zealand tomorrow it will mark their 56th start as a combination. It will be a new record for a pairing of Irish nine and 10, taking them past the combination of Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer.
Sexton joked recently about how he never saw this coming given the struggles they had in establishing a working relationship. Murray was in sync with that when he recollected how they had “had a few arguments” on the pitch in the lead up to that 2011 World Cup.
“I suppose that’s how you iron things out. He was there for a while and I was probably learning on the go at that World Cup and there was a bit of miscommunication. But since then it’s been really fruitful. We had ups and downs, but more often than not we’ve gone pretty well together.
“I haven’t thought about that record, to be honest with you. It’s too big a week to think about things like that.
Sexton and Murray have been keystones in an Ireland squad that has raised the bar time and again since that first hit-out together. Both are world-class operators whose progress as individuals has mirrored — and helped to plot — that of the collective.
The group has occasionally prospered without them. Murray’s absence last November, when the All Blacks were beaten on Irish soil for the first time, was a major statement about the strength of depth being injected into the squad by Joe Schmidt. But the pair remain untouchable when fit.
Murray’s form has been questioned this year. He hasn’t offered the same breaking threat around the fringes this year since returning from a neck injury. Coincidence or not, he hasn’t scored a try for Ireland since February of 2018.
Sexton too has had to put up with murmurs about his form in 2019 but both have offered signs of their imperious best here in Japan, in Murray’s case with the speed and accuracy of his service and general tempo against Samoa in Fukuoka last week.
Truth is, pretty much all of Ireland’s best players have had games and spells below their absolute best this last nine months or so but Murray believes that the side now is, if anything, better than the one that beat New Zealand late last year.
“I definitely think we’re a better team than we have been and that’s no surprise. That’s the kind of environment we have and we’re in every week, to push the limits and push each other, be honest with each other and try and get better.”
He doesn’t differ with the notion there have been dips this year, individually and as a collective, but the body of work built up over this World Cup cycle is too big and tooimpressive to not hold some water as the All Blacks loom on the Tokyo horizon.
Beating the world champions in Chicago three years ago broke the mythic spell that the Kiwis had held over Irish men’s senior teams for well over a century. Doing that couldn’t help but feed Schmidt’s squad with a belief they were a significant step closer to where they want to be. Every one of Ireland’s starting side this weekend knows what it is to beat New Zealand.
Seven of them were on the Lions tour of 2017 when the test series finished in a draw. Five of those featured across the three tests.
“With the record we had against New Zealand up to that point, there was always that doubt or, like, how you feel, how do you get past that roadblock that is beating the All Blacks. You have a certain amount of confidence then just getting past that roadblock.
“That’s how I’d describe it. It’s a massive boost of confidence, it shows you they’re human, it just gives you that massive self-belief that you might have been restricted by the record that was there, that we hadn’t beaten them.
“You know, to go on and do it again with the Lions in New Zealand and then, obviously, for the majority of the squad to it in November, it just gives you that extra kinda purpose and that reason to feel good about yourselves.”
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