Ireland have not ruled out the possibility of Conor Murray featuring in the upcoming Guinness Series.
The first-choice scrum-half has not played since helping Ireland to a series win over the Wallabies in Australia in June, having suffered a neck injury during Munster’s pre-season and the 29-year-old was omitted from head coach Joe Schmidt’s 42-man squad for November’s four internationals, this weekend’s clash with Italy in Chicago, and the three home Guinness Series Tests against Argentina, New Zealand, and the USA.
The absence of Murray’s name from that extended squad led All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen to speculate that it was an “Irish trick” ahead of the eagerly anticipated showdown when the world champions and number one-ranked team come to Dublin on November 17 to play Schmidt’s second-ranked side.
Now, Hansen will have more to chew over after Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby refused to rule Murray out of the clash, though he did add he thought the chances of the Munster and Lions star facing Argentina in 11 days were less likely.
Murray is in camp at Carton House this week training with 12 members of the Irish squad not involved in Chicago and working under the guidance of Schmidt, who does not travel to the United States until later today.
Easterby, speaking in the Windy City ahead of the Italy game at Soldier Field, said of the scrum-half facing the All Blacks: “No, he hasn’t been ruled out.
“He’s been on a longer-term injury list, but he’s in camp this week. He’s been in Carton and we’ll probably assess him as we go through the series.
“Everyone that was selected in that squad is not necessarily fit now, but they’re potentially available throughout the series. We’ll make decisions on each individual case as we go through the series, partly dependant on how well things go this weekend and, hopefully, if we stay injury free, but with Conor, it’s giving him an opportunity to get back in with us, working with some treatment, but also there’s still potential.”
Easterby agreed with the suggestion the Argentina game at Aviva Stadium on November 10 was coming a little too early for Murray.
“Yeah, I’d say more than likely, but without being there in Dublin now and knowing what he’s going through and what he’s reacting like, we’ll obviously make that call and we’ll get some information on him and his status probably later in the week with a view to preparing for next week.”
Also receiving treatment at Carton House this week are full-back Rob Kearney and back-row Peter O’Mahony, both of whom hurt their shoulders playing for Leinster and Munster respectively last weekend. Munster skipper and Ireland vice-captain O’Mahony shipped a blow in the final throes of his province’s dramatic last-gasp PRO14 win at home to Glasgow Warriors on Saturday night, while the following day Kearney was taken off early in the second half at Treviso.
“He did take a knock,” Easterby said of the flanker. “A little bit like Rob, he’s fortunate that he’s able to get treatment back in Dublin and he will be assessed as the week goes on and a lot will ride on how he comes through the next three or four days building up to Sunday, when we make some calls on players, based on this game, but also on the guys that stayed behind.”
Ireland are not short on experience in Chicago, despite the opportunities this game presents for the likes of fly-half Joey Carbery, wing Jordan Larmour, and lock Tadhg Beirne to build their Test-match experience against Six Nations rivals 10 months out from the start of the World Cup in Japan.
Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong bring Lions experience to the front-row options, while Devin Toner was another who featured strongly in Ireland’s last visit to Soldier Field two years ago, when they scored a historic first victory over the All Blacks.
Easterby also confirmed that Leinster back-rower Rhys Ruddock will captain Ireland on Saturday against Italy, reprising the leadership role he undertook on the 2017 summer tour to the US and Japan. That made it a simple choice, the forwards coach agreed.
“Partly because he’s done it before. Partly because we have real confidence in his leadership and he’s a quality individual that guys will look to and will respond to.
“He led really well for us in USA and Japan in 2017 and he’s definitely a guy we see a lot of leadership qualities in. Yeah, it was a pretty straightforward choice once we’d decided on the squad. A pretty easy choice on his selection as captain.”