Andy Farrell is convinced there is plenty of road left for Conor Murray to travel in his Test rugby career after backing his under-fire scrum-half to steer Ireland in their Six Nations opener against Scotland in Dublin this Saturday.
Murray, 30, was widely believed to have been under severe pressure to hand over the Ireland number nine jersey he has occupied for the best part of a decade to in-form Ulster half-back John Cooney for the opening round of the championship.
The Munster and Lions star not only held onto his place in the starting line-up to earn his 78th Ireland cap, but there was also a massive vote of confidence for his leadership, current form and positive outlook of late, including a strong training week on Portugal’s Algarve these past six days.
“We’ve had three really competitive sessions, and Conor has been really, really good,” Farrell said yesterday.
“There’s been a lot of chats, one-on-ones, and he’s brimming at the minute. We’re expecting good things from Conor at the weekend.”
Much has been made of Murray’s Man-of-the-Match performance for Munster against Ospreys in Heineken Champions Cup pool finale, which continued the scrum-half’s upturn in form after a disappointing 2019.
Farrell says he is looking forward to seeing further increases in Murray’s performance levels as he continues to see off rivals Cooney and Luke McGrath, both of whom came into camp in terrific form.
“He’s unbelievably determined to kick his career on,” said Farrell.
I’m excited about his future, as well as the other two nines.
Farrell yesterday revealed a new-look leadership group within the playing squad, led by captain Johnny Sexton, vice-captain Peter O’Mahony, and Iain Henderson, which has added younger Leinster trio Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose, and James Ryan to its number, seemingly at the expense of CJ Stander.
Murray is not a member either, despite his experience, but Farrell added: “Conor’s a leader anyway, as in he’s a senior player. He’ll find his own way to be able to do that becausecos that’s what he’s done for quite some time.
“As far as the leadership group is concerned, Conor wouldn’t be directly involved, though I would expect everyone to be themselves. That’s what I was referring to as far as Conor’s concerned. He’s being himself and he’s leading the way that he does.”
Murray certainly has the respect of his team-mates, with wing Jacob Stockdale singing his praises yesterday despite his disappointment for Ulster team-mate Cooney, who was named as a replacement.
“They’re both brilliant players and it’s probably a bit of a 50-50 between the two of them and I’d say I’d be very surprised if you don’t see Coons starting a game in the Six Nations and it getting rotated around a wee bit,” said Stockdale.
For us as a team, it’s just fantastic to have two scrum-halves who are playing so well.
That competition for the jersey, Stockdale reasoned, has helped Murray raise his game.
“Mur brings a real kind of composure to his game, like at times he seems pretty unflappable, which is exactly what you want in your scrum-half.
“I think he’s been training really well, as has the rest of the team, and you definitely do raise your game when there’s more competition on you.
“I know for me, I’ve definitely been pushing myself harder in recent months because I know how well the likes of Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour, Earlsy, Dave Kearney are playing.
They’re all playing great rugby at the moment, so for them putting that pressure on me is class, and it makes me raise my game, so I’ve no doubt it’s exactly the same with Mur.