Warren Gatland and his Lions will be the furthest thing from Conor Murray’s mind when Ireland face the All Blacks in Chicago and Dublin this November.
Joe Schmidt’s side are the only one of the four ‘home’ unions who will face the world champions before Gatland’s tourists travel to New Zealand for the 2017 summer tour and the Kiwi has suggested it may count in the favour of prospective Irish candidates.
“They will be massive challenges,” said Murray of the games. “We had Irish camp a few weeks ago and we were already trying to plot our game plan. If you did well against them that would help your cause but that’s not on your mind when you’re playing the All Blacks with your country.
“It’s not a trial game. If there is a spin-off effect to it then that’s great.”
That said, the prospect of touring with the best Britain and Ireland have to offer is one that can’t help but get Murray’s competitive juices flowing. Memories of his first tour, to Australia three years ago, are treasured. Those on the pitch and off it.
The Munster scrum-half played no part in the first Test, but he featured for over an hour over the course of the second two and the next travelling party will be taking on the All Blacks at a time when they continue to raise the bar ever higher.
Frighteningly high, in fact.
Gatland insists that the series in winnable — he would — and yet Steve Hansen’s squad hasn’t missed a beat since winning the World Cup. If anything, they have improved despite the loss of high-profile veterans like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
“They have world-class players everywhere and Beauden Barrett is probably the standout player right now. I’d imagine they will only get even better as they play through the next couple of weeks and they will be a cohesive unit by the time Ireland come up against them.
“It was the same when we played them four years ago in the Aviva. They were the best team in the world back then and we came very close so we have to believe that we can get a result if everything goes to plan.
“Rugby games are very weird. Things happen that you don’t expect.”
Murray has ample business to see to before all that.
His season should start away to the Dragons on Saturday week with half-an-hour or so off the bench and, with Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber on site in Limerick, quite a bit has changed since Ireland’s nine last wore the Munster red four months ago.
Johnny Holland’s forced retirement has robbed him of a potential partner at 10 and placed an even heavier emphasis on Ian Keatley as well as Tyler Blyendaal’s fitness.
Murray is confident the injury-prone 26-year-old Kiwi can shine this season as long as fitness permits.
“I’m sure ye are sick of hearing us talk about Tyler and not actually seeing him because he has been here for two years now and he has played maybe four or five games for us. He’s a really smart guy and in the meeting room you can tell that he knows the game of rugby inside out.
“He is very good at delivering clear messages to the lads. As an out-half that is what you want.
“He went well last weekend and against Worcester in Cork so there are signs there that he is ready to step up. Hopefully, we can see more of him on the pitch this year.”
With Erasmus opting against an influx of new faces, there is an onus on those already on the books to step up, although the confirmed arrival on a four-month contract of Jaco Taute does make up somewhat for the absence for the foreseeable future of Francis Saili at centre.
“Definitely. Dan Goggin played really well last week (against Scarlets) and through pre-season and if he continues to do well he could potentially stay in there. You don’t know. But to have that backup for someone like Francis who was an All Black is a massive boost.
“Francis is a really important player for us so we did need someone with a lot of experience and ability similar to that, just to be able to step in there as well. We’ve been trying to pronounce Jaco’s name but we’ll be giving him an Irish nickname as soon as he gets here.”
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