Cometh the hour, cometh the man they had all been talking about.
There were 60 minutes played of Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Scotland on Saturday when John Cooney replaced Conor Murray. The wave of noise that greeted the switch spoke volumes for the clamour that had built for the Ulsterman in recent months.
You’d have to wonder what Murray made it of it all. A world-class scrum-half, a man with a glittering body of work to his name with his province, with his country and with the British and Irish Lions. It had to hurt.
‘Yes Conor, but what have you done for us lately?’
It’s an astonishing situation given Murray, even more so than Jonathan Sexton, was considered maybe the one untouchable in Ireland’s back line for the best part of a decade. The sense for so long was that he was a racing car nine and the rest mere mid-range saloons.
Kieran Marmion’s starring role when Ireland saw off New Zealand in Dublin 15 months ago was the first inkling we had that Murray wasn’t indispensible but it has taken that bad neck injury and Cooney’s late flowering to open a real debate where there had been none for so long.
A scrum-half is in many ways the fulcrum of the team and the choice of Murray over Cooney acted as a sort of weather vane for Andy Farrell’s first-team selection last week.
Choose the late developer and it would be deemed a harbinger of revolution. Go for the incumbent and it woud be a vote for the established order. It was a simplistic hook on which to hang it all but it was too easy a narrative not to take hold.
Cooney made the most of his 20 minutes off the bench. There was a flurry of excellently executed and important tackles and a handful of precisely calibrated kicks over the Scottish defence that handed Ireland momentum and field position when both were at a premium.
That sort of punchy influence was perfectly in keeping with a man who has become known for his big moments in games with Ulster but your view on how Murray played may be shaped by whatever your opinions were of his form and his place beforehand.
The truth is that the 30-year old did some good and some not-so-good. The latter column included that intercept pass that almost led to a Scottish try in the first half and a few poorly executed box kicks but he was mostly efficient with the ball he had to work with.
“I thought John did well when he came on,” said Farrell. “I thought Conor did as well. I thought he played with a higher tempo at times, he was right in the thick of it when we were going pretty well in the opposition ‘22 in the first-half and in the second-half he was looking for holes and getting out there a little bit more than what we’ve seen him in the past. He’ll be happy enough.
“John came on, he’ll be happy to get a good 20 minutes there. There wasn’t too much for him to do because the game started to get a little bit stop-start, but I thought he did very well.”
Nothing we saw on Saturday is unlikely to swing votes previously declared on this particular election. Those championing Cooney will have only been emboldened by their man’s cameo but it’s hard to see Farrell promoting him for Wales’ visit to Dublin next week now.
Five of his caps at Test level have amounted to a grand total of 23 minutes. His one start came against the USA in November of 2018 and it’s worth remembering that Farrell was part of the coaching staff when Cooney was omitted from the World Cup squad, and warm-ups, last year.
Farrell made the point late on Saturday night that he’d had just five training sessions with his new team ahead of the Scottish game. He’ll bank only a handful more before a buoyant Welsh brigade marches on the Aviva.
The safe bet would be placed on Murray getting the nod again.
This debate is far from settled.