Conor Murray: ‘The guys who came on laid that platform’

Ronan O’Gara served as chaperone when Conor Murray stepped blinking into the white heat of Test rugby on an August night in Bordeaux six years ago and the Munster scrum-half has returned that favour more than a few times since.

It was Murray providing the steady service and wise words when Declan Kidney parachuted Paddy Jackson into the side at O’Gara’s expense in Murrayfield two seasons later and again when an inexperienced Ian Keatley was charged with running the show in Rome in 2015.

Ian Madigan has benefited from his sterling service more than once down the years too and then there was Joey Carbery who could hardly have asked for a more polished nine when he was introduced against the All Blacks in Chicago last November.

But it’s his partnership with Jonathan Sexton that has defined Murray’s Irish career.

Their first runout as a pairing came during a World Cup warm-up loss to England in Dublin in 2011 when both were sprung from the bench. They started as a double act a few short weeks later when seeing to the USA in New Plymouth.

These days, they top the bill.

For all the praise heaped on Jackson this last few weeks, in November and last summer when Sexton failed to make South Africa, there was the sense with Sexton’s return to duty on Saturday of a priceless oil painting being restored to its full glory after a period of neglect.

These two belong together.

Murray, while praising Jackson to the hilt, put it well. It’s a “a feel thing”, he said. He spoke of the little differences between the two 10s which someone like him, with his intuitive knowledge of both and close proximity on the field, would pick up on when others couldn’t.

“He gives a lot,” said Murray of his Leinster colleague. “He gives a massive amount to the team. He’s the one who drives a lot of what we do. He’s worked with Joe (Schmidt) a long, long time, so that experience is invaluable. For me playing with him, we’ve gotten to know each other really well.

“We’ve played, I think, over 30 times now and you just know their habits a little bit better. I’ve played a good bit with Paddy as well, it’s just about developing those relationships, and Johnny’s world class. So having someone like him, plain and simple, is really good for your team.

“He came in, did really well, got that drop goal which alleviated a good bit of pressure on us and then Paddy came on and had his run as well. Out-half is a really strong position for us now, with Joey playing well, Keats is there. We’ve good depth.”

All of which is of great comfort to Ireland.

Sexton’s injury issues have been keenly reported and commented on this last few years and those absences have made Murray all the more indispensable to his country. We have yet to see Ireland make do without their Munster scrum-half for any period of time and the hope is that such a scenario won’t dawn any time soon.

Kieran Marmion has recovered some form of late after a bumpy year or two where his progress maybe didn’t match that expected of him but it still says something that Schmidt waited until the last grain of sand was draining from the egg-timer against France before sending him on.

Murray was exemplary against the French.

The kick in behind the visitors that skimmed the right side of the endline flag before exiting for a lineout summed up a day where anything his boot touched turned to gold and that is before any dissection of his passing, his superb defence and the trademark snipe for another international try.

Sexton’s display was similar in its all-round quality and there is a sense that the pair’s games elevate to a higher plain when they take to the field together.

”I felt good, felt we had a good week’s training and things came off,” said Murray. “We needed territory and, yeah, I am pleased with my game … It’s the players you have around you, the pack up front and the guys who came on laid that platform.

“In a game like that, they just want the ball put in front of them and be able to attack a lineout or a scrum for the opposition in their 22. I am happy with my game.”

Saturday’s 69 minutes was the longest Murray and Sexton have spent on the field together since the defeat of Scotland on the last day of the 2016 Six Nations. All of nine games ago. It’s been too long. For them, for us, and certainly for Ireland.

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