THE silver trophy is in the shape of rugby ball, but, contrary to the instincts of a scrum-half, this was one oval sphere Conor Murray was not keen to let go of.
For all the disappointment felt across the Munster squad at the end of a difficult European campaign, whether they advance tonight to the Magners League Grand Final or not, the province’s Academy player of the year has much to be thankful about from 2010-11 with the John McCarthy award he received last weekend wonderful proof of time well spent.
Murray, in the Munster team to play Ospreys at Thomond Park tonight, turned 22 last month having already tasted victory over Australia and started key games against Leinster, Brive and Harlequins.
His reward for a fine final year has been a two-year professional contract to commence next season.
The Limerick man, a product of St Munchin’s College, had made a couple of substitute appearances for the senior team in 09-10, but his integration into the professional squad has been cemented since last November when McGahan threw him in the 15-6 defeat of the Wallabies for Murray’s senior bow at Thomond Park.
He’s been in the senior squad ever since, working alongside fellow scrum-halves Tomás O’Leary, Peter Stringer and Duncan Williams and seizing his opportunities with veracity to earn the number nine jersey for the significant Magners League win over arch rivals Leinster and then the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter and semi-finals.
Of the highlights, Murray picked out the victory over Leinster at Thomond Park — “the first really big game I started and knew Tony really had faith in me to do a job” — and the winning dressing room after the Australia game, adding: “It was such a great feeling and everyone was buzzing, it was really exciting and you want those feelings more often than not.
“After the Harlequins game the feeling wasn’t great at all but I’ve been lucky enough. We’ve won more often than not this year but the big games, you have to try and target them. That’s been the only disappointment and hopefully there isn’t any more for the rest of the season.”
It all points to excellent progress for a young man who, as a small boy in Patrickswell, would be reduced to tears at just the thought of playing rugby.
“I only started playing rugby when I was 13 or 14,” Murray said.
“I used to go to Garryowen when I was younger and my dad used to bring me for U8s and I remember crying in bed because I didn’t want to go. I’d just curl up in my blanket and try and get out of it.
“I used to love hurling and football and soccer, so it’s weird how it ended up.”
By his own admission, he wasn’t a great hurler. But Murray’s last game came “a couple of years ago” in midfield for Patrickswell in an U21 county final. By that time rugby had taken a firm grip under the guidance of influential club coaches.
“I’d played in lots of positions but when I moved to scrum-half I did a year with Young Munster first and that’s where I got my feet as a scrum-half. I got a lot of help from Derek Tobin, an ex-Munster scrum-half, and he did a lot of good work for me.
“When I went to Garryowen with Greg Oliver, who does a bit of work with Munster with the nines, he’s been a huge help to me. He’s always had videos and stuff for me to work on, and always been very honest about it. If I do something wrong he’ll let me know about it and we’ll go out onto the pitch and work one-on-one and he’ll help me through it. He’s a quality scrum-half and no-one better to learn from.
“And it’s like that with Strings, Tomás and Duncan. It’s great to have them around with a lot of experience I haven’t had and watching them training is priceless.”
Murray’s new two-year deal also gives the scrum-half further breathing space to concentrate on developing his game rather than fret about his future in it.
“I don’t know about relaxing for two years but I know I’m safe and I’m going to be in the squad for the next two years so I can work on things and try and go up the pecking order and try and challenge Strings, Tomás and Duncan.
“The experience they have is so vast and if I can learn from them and try and get the good habits they have and put it into my own game then I’ll be doing well and hopefully go further. Hopefully I can try and get a few more starts and kick on from there. ”
Murray was also keen to acknowledge the debt he owes to the Munster Academy staff, led by manager Ian Sherwin and including skills coaches Ken O’Connell and Ray Egan and strength and conditioning coach Feargal O’Callaghan.
“To start, I didn’t really know what was expected of me to be a professional, but the Academy gave me that – Fogs (O’Callaghan) and Ian, Ken, Ray, everyone I worked with. They gave me a kick up the backside when I needed it and then coming into the senior set-up, you see what’s required and I’m prepared to do that. I hopefully know what it takes to get there.”
That silver rugby ball sitting on the Murray mantelpiece for the next year should serve as a useful reminder. “It’s a great honour. Just looking at the list of players on the trophy, it’s a lot to live up to. If I do half of what they’ve done I’ll be happy with it.”
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