Conor Murray is primed for a “brilliant performance” when he returns to Munster colours for Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final with Edinburgh, Johann van Graan has declared. The Munster head coach may have burdened Murray with even more pressure after a Six Nations campaign which saw the Ireland scrum-half come under intense scrutiny about his form and a level of criticism the 29-year-old had not faced in his impressive career to date.
Alternatively, he has seen a player quickly turn the page to leave a disappointing Test window behind him and face into the business end of his club season fit and fresh following a much-needed mental break from the game since Ireland’s defeat by Wales in Cardiff on March 16. Munster supporters set to converge in their thousands on Edinburgh on Saturday lunchtime will certainly be hoping it is the latter scenario and van Graan yesterday put forward a convincing argument why he is confident in the abilities of his still world-class number nine.
“I met up with Conor a week ago and went through his game,” the Munster boss said. “He’ll be the first to say he wants to improve every single week. He took a mental break and was really refreshed when he walked in here on Monday morning and he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“If you look at Edinburgh, they’ve got a very good kicking game and they’re very specific, and we’ve got a good kicking game and he’s a central figure in that. Conor is a world-class player and he’ll come around and I am sure will play very well on Saturday afternoon. I don’t read all the criticism and all the positives. All I know is that Conor is a world-class player. He wants to be the best in the business and he’ll work every single day as much as he can to be at his best on Saturday.”
With first-choice fly-half Joey Carbery reported by van Graan to be ready to go this weekend following the hamstring injury he suffered in training following his starring role against Scotland at Murrayfield in the Six Nations six weeks ago, Munster could be in a position to pair Murray with his Ireland team-mate for just their fourth start together at the province since the out-half joined from Leinster last summer and the scrum-half recovered from a neck injury to start his season at the end of November.
"You have got to adapt. In the last two games they were available for Munster, against Gloucester and Exeter, I thought they were very good together.
“Sometimes you have to revisit the past to look at where you’ve been before, but the most important thing is that we are looking forward to this weekend. We’ve got big dreams, but to keep those dreams alive we have got to perform on Saturday against quality opposition playing really good rugby at home.”
Murray’s return to Munster training yesterday alongside the fit-again Carbery and fellow Six Nations returnees Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Dave Kilcoyne marked the first time a full squad has been available to the province since that 9-6 win over the Chiefs in Limerick 10 weeks ago. Yet van Graan insisted there were no psychological wounds to heal following Ireland’s disappointing championship campaign.
“We (coaches) speak to our players and we as humans can never communicate enough. I had discussions with all the lads before they came in, speaking about what happened, getting a plan in place for each individual and then making sure we as a group got together as soon as possible.”
As daunting as an away knockout game in Europe can be, with home teams winning 77% of the 88 quarter-final ties in the tournament’s history, Munster can at least look forward to massive backing at Murrayfield this Saturday lunchtime. Tickets for the 67,144-seat stadium have been on open sale since the draw was made in January and with more than 30,000 sold at the end of last week, anecdotal evidence suggests a big contingent of travelling supporters for the province’s competition-record 18th quarter-final appearance.
“Our support is fantastic and just listening already to stories about people travelling I think that’s what makes Munster in Europe very special. It will be a huge amount of supporters on Saturday afternoon in Edinburgh and we as a group are very aware of it, very thankful for the support that we do get home and away. The only thing we can control is our performance on the field and we are going to give it our best shot.”