So, that’s that then. No Conor Murray next month. Possibly Ireland’s most important player and he’s unavailable for the visit of the All Blacks, writes Brendan O’Brien.
What you think about that depends on whether you’re the glass half-empty type or the kind who can spill the dinner on the floor and think that, if nothing else, it saves you from rustling anything up for the dog.
Murray’s worth to Ireland, especially against the back-to-back world champions, isn’t easy to exaggerate.
So often placed on a pedestal alongside Aaron Smith in the pantheon of the world’s best scrum-halves, it’s a shame we won’t get the opportunity to see them sharing the same pitch in Dublin. Murray is a brilliant passer of the ball and his box-kicking is unparalleled in world rugby.
He snipes for tries, guides his pack with an assured hand and has the physicality to be a considerable presence in defence.
It goes without saying that his loss doesn’t do much for Ireland’s odds against the All Blacks.
Murray’s hold on the Irish No. 9 jersey is total with Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath, John Cooney battling for the second slot.
And that in itself is a very big problem. Since the last World Cup, Ireland have played 25 games against other tier one nations. Murray has started 24 of them.
The only one he sat out was the 2017 Six Nations game against England, through injury. In all, he has played in 2,207 of the 2,500 minutes all that entailed. McGrath has managed 14, Marmion the rest. And it took the Connacht player 14 appearances to bag that much.
Marmion and McGrath demonstrated at the Aviva Stadium that day two seasons ago against England that they were capable of deputising to good effect.
Ireland won 13-9 and deprived England of a Grand Slam with McGrath’s clever chip kick into touch inside the English 22 proving to be the final nail in the coffin of their ambitions. But even Murray can see the need for them to be exposed more to such higher plains.
“Big time. If you look at it in that sense, in terms of minutes played and stuff, I’ve been lucky in playing a number of them and seen out a good few games,” he admitted this week.
“I’m sure those guys are going to relish it. That’s the frustrating thing. You’re going to see the other guys potentially in that jersey. I wish them the absolute best and they’re going to go well and, hopefully, the team keeps going. That drives me on to get back. That keeps me motivated when I’ve to go in and meet our physios in the morning and do my rehab.”
If Joe Schmidt has had one guiding principle since the 2015 World Cup then it has been to avoid a repeat of the scenario — anywhere on the pitch — whereby Ian Madigan was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Irish bench to replace an injured Jonathan Sexton against France and Argentina on the back of so little time at out-half. So much has been made of Madigan’s limited time at No. 10 for Leinster in the season leading up to that tournament but his Test experience was even more constrained with only three starts in the green 10 jersey since his debut. Two of those were against the USA and Canada. The other was a warm-up against Scotland.
So Murray’s absence, if nothing else, will serve a longer-term purpose. And it isn’t even as if his absence next month should automatically negate the possibility of a second ever win against New Zealand. Steve Hansen’s machine has displayed signs of some very human weaknesses and Ireland have got under their skin before.
When Ireland almost beat them in Dublin in 2013 it was with a side that had just been crushed by Australia, hadn’t beaten a tier-one team in nine months through five attempts, had an epidemic of injuries to their wingers, and harboured doubts over the well-being of Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney. It was also the last time Murray was dropped. Eoin Reddan started instead.
Three years later and a side that travelled to Chicago without the injured Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, and with two rookies by the name of Joey Carbery and Garry Ringrose on the bench, to face a side that had won a record 18 games on the bounce, went out and claimed the All Black scalp for the first ever time.
If Ireland are to trek beyond the badlands that are the quarter-final stage of a World Cup for the first time in Japan next year then it is distinctly possible they will have to beat one of New Zealand or South Africa without the services of a Murray or a Sexton or a Tadhg Furlong. It’s no harm prepping for those eventualities sooner rather than later.
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