Conor Murray in a good place to face massive challenges

Modesty and an acute awareness of the fickle nature of sport prevents Conor Murray from strutting around Munster’s High Performance Centre like a prize peacock.

Yet if the Ireland scrum-half walked into the room wearing a crown and riding a unicorn it would still understate the confidence coursing through his veins right now.

A strong second half of the year for Murray has hit new heights with his tour de force in the Irish victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last month. And much like the rest of Joe Schmidt’s squad, completing a full house of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in a calendar year by beating the Wallabies in the last Test of the Guinness Series 10 days ago has sent the 26-year-old back to his province with a spring in his step, his performance levels having kicked up a gear or two to new heights.

Which is perfect timing for Munster as they head into a pivotal period of the season, starting at Thomond Park this Saturday with the visit of Champions Cup pool rivals Leicester Tigers, which will define which way the campaign will turn.

“I feel really good,” Murray said. “Probably since the South Africa tour, I think maybe more of a leadership role. Not necessarily talking more, I just feel a lot more comfortable within the group, not just in Ireland but in here.

“I feel confident about my own game and that allows you play a lot better. If you have got a few hang-ups in your head about your form or whatever, or if things aren’t going your way selection-wise... it’s just been a good month for me and I feel really really good about my game.

“My body feels really good, really fit, that’s half the battle. If you can be injury-free and playing week in week out, you build that form. I’m in a good place right now. It’s going to be a long year but I am happy with the start I have made. But there are going to be massive challenges ahead.”

Home and away pool games with old foes Leicester kick off an eight-week phase which will also see the Pro12 leaders take on provincial derbies with Leinster and Connacht over Christmas and New Year and then resume the bid for Champions Cup qualification for the knockout phase with three consecutive games, including the rearranged round one trip to Racing 92.

As daunting as those appointments appear, they are just the sort of contests to get Murray’s juices flowing. That his sense of leadership has increased in tandem with his best form in the most important matches should come as no surprise.

“I think just the games that happened, the big games and big crowds, and what was at stake, that probably brings more out of you, that definitely brings more out of me. When the big games are on I just feel there’s a little bit more of a buzz about me and there is something extra in the week, which is nice.”

There is certainly something extra added to the intensity of a Champions Cup week and more still when the opposition is Leicester, the only team to inflict two European defeats on Munster at Thomond Park.

The Tigers inflicted double misery on the province last year with home and away wins and Murray admitted there was a need to right some wrongs.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of history there and they were in our group last year. The away game in Welford Road last year wasn’t as disappointing as the home game. We played well away from home last year and we just came up short. Whereas at home we didn’t really fire a shot. We didn’t play that well and they out-performed us and we were always chasing the game and we were always second best to most things that day.

“I am sure when we have previews of Leicester this week those clips will be brought up. That will urge us to train and prepare really well and make sure that doesn’t happen this time around. They are a really good side on a good run as well, actually play quite similar to us. It will be whoever plays their gameplan, or executes their gameplan better because we are quite similar teams.”

Meanwhile, Leicester will be without Dan Cole for their trip to Munster, but Manu Tuilagi is in contention to start.

Cole suffered a gash to his thigh during England’s win over Australia last week and it means he will not feature at Thomond Park on Saturday.

The prop has been forced to have stitches for the injury and Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill is uncertain if Cole will be back for the return fixture at Welford Road next week.

“Dan Cole got injured at the weekend, he had quite a nasty cut on his quad from a boot and that will make him unavailable for the weekend,” said Cockerill.

While Cole maybe out, Leicester have been boosted by the news that Tuilagi is in line to start against Munster.

The centre missed England’s autumn Tests with a groin injury, but after 29 minutes against Northampton at the weekend he is raring to go.

“We will see how we get through this week but there is a chance he will start this weekend. We will see if that is the right thing to do,” Cockerill added.

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