Conor Murray is already acknowledged as being a breed apart in terms of his scrum-half play but the Munster and Ireland number nine is fast becoming a rugby man of remarkable talents.
An assessment of Murray’s impact on a game and his increasing influence as a playmaker makes for a justifiable claim to the 28-year-old being the best number nine in world rugby.
Yet the Munsterman who helped guide the British & Irish Lions to their drawn series with the All Blacks in New Zealand last summer is now showcasing even more additions to his skill set that really put him on a different plane to his contemporaries.
Last Sunday’s long-range penalty goal to help secure a losing Champions Cup bonus point against Racing 92 in Paris was confirmation that Murray has the big boot that can earn teams vital points from places otherwise off-limits and Munster head coach Johann van Graan is keen for his star to make the most of this valuable asset.
Van Graan has also used Murray’s 1.88m (6ft 2ins) frame to good effect in a lineout scenario, with the scrum-half, lifted by fellow back Niall Scannell and prop Dave Kilcoyne, winning a throw against Leinster on St Stephen’s Day that led to him scoring a try from close range.
He explained he was at first a reluctant participant in the set-piece and had to be persuaded by lineout leader Billy Holland.
“Billy came to me about it,” Murray said. “The lineout callers have a meeting during the week and they come up with their plays.
“Billy came up to me after it and asked me. I declined at first, but I got my head around it eventually.
“I normally refuse first off — they then have to convince me to do it. I did it when I was younger at Young Munster, against UCC I think. It came off. Like the kicking at goal, if it’s something that will help the team, I will do it.
“It is a bit scary up there. I kicked a few fellas in the private areas when we were practising, but I eventually got the hang of it. It nearly came off against Leinster, CJ Stander nearly got over and we managed to get over a couple of phases later. As I said, if it is something that helps the team, then I’ll do it.”
Other Munster lineouts this season have seen Keith Earls at the front of the line, his and other backs’ presence spreading confusion in opposition defenders, as Murray explained.
“I think defences are so good now and the analysis that teams do on each other these days is massively important and it is really clear when you are going into a game that you have an idea of what kind of moves they are going to play, so if they throw up something different, they might catch a team off guard and that is the plan, to try and stay one step ahead of players and teams and try and get the upper hand in whatever way you can.”
Whether similar tactics will be deployed on Sunday against Castres at Thomond Park, the French Top14 side have now been put on their guard against conceding penalties around the halfway line for fear of Murray’s boot coming into play.
Last Sunday was not the first time the scrum-half has kicked for goal. He grabbed three valuable points for Ireland in the absence of Johnny Sexton during the historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago in November 2016 and just before this Christmas past, stepped up to the tee at Welford Road with a long-range effort against Leicester Tigers that glanced the wrong side of the upright yet had plenty of distance. His strike against Racing was his third shot off the 4G surface at the U Arena and though one out of three from a kicker’s usual range is considered below par, getting any points from distance has to be deemed a successful gamble.
For that Munster have to thank British & Irish Lions kicking coach Neil Jenkins.
“It is something that stemmed from the 2013 Lions tour,” Murray said. “‘Jenks’ just saw me, not messing, but taking a few kicks and he said I should keep it up. It’s something that I’ve tipped away at, not something I’ve practised an awful lot.
“In recent times the opportunities, starting with Leicester away, came up and it becomes more realistic. At the weekend it could have been an important kick to get a win, so it’s probably something I’ll take more seriously.
“It’s in my locker, so it’s something that if called upon I am more than happy to have a go and hopefully help the team. It’s not something I’ve done more and more, it’s just that opportunities have come up to do it recently.
“I do enjoy it, when I was younger I kicked in school and for Garryowen in the AIL. I kept it up when I came into the Munster squad, but obviously, Rog (Ronan O’Gara) had the kicking looked after there.
“I put it on the back-burner and always had a little tip away at it. I suppose in that environment it’s a really enjoyable challenge to get a big kick like that. It’s something you would enjoy, yeah.”
Murray said his successful kick, just behind the halfway line was his “normal” distance but added: “I had missed two, so I knew if another one popped up I really wanted to take one and get it or else I’d be taking a big slagging this week.
“In fairness, the lads see me in training doing it and see I have the distance so it’s great to have guys like that... It’s great to have your team-mates backing you.”
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