Tony McGahan gave Conor Murray his big chance, Declan Kidney shocked the rugby world by bringing him to the World Cup and making him his country’s first choice No 9, a status he has retained over the past 12 months, and now he’s being talked up as a leading candidate for a Lions place next summer.
The good news is that the 23-year-old, 6ft 2ins, 14st 10lbs native of hurling-crazy Patrickswell in Limerick is a level-headed young man under no illusions about what the future may hold. McGahan has moved on to pastures new so Murray must now convince the Rob Penney-Simon Mannix coaching ticket that he remains their best scrum-half option. After that, he fully appreciates he will need to step up still further on all the improvement he has shown this year if he is to remain Ireland’s scrum-half.
“If you stand still, someone is going to come from behind and leap over you and that can happen quickly”, he accepts.
“Every game wasn’t perfect. After many, you’d come off unhappy with certain things and they’re the things we’re working on now in pre-season. I listen to the coaches and especially with so many experienced players at Munster and Ireland, I ask them for advice because they know an awful lot.
“It has all happened quite quickly but it’s where I always wanted to be. Hopefully, I have a competitive streak in me that I want to be the best and start in teams and play in big games. I’ve had a year to get used to it so with all the retirements and players moving on I now have to take on more responsibility and be more of a leader.”
Peter Stringer is the archetypal scrum-half we have come to admire and respect over the years — short of stature, hard as nails, football wise and, above all, an impeccable passer of the ball.
However, it looks like the modern professional game is leaning more and more towards far bigger men, most notably Mike Phillips, all 6ft 3ins and 15st of him at Wales, and the equally powerfully built Murray of Ireland. Which type serves a team best?
“I’m 6ft 2ins tall and a lot of people have opinions as to what height a scrum-half should be,” Murray muses.
“Rugby is becoming a bigger man’s game — players are constantly getting bigger, stronger, faster, it’s getting more physical and if I can hold my own and not be battered and bruised and take a few punishments during the year and still stand up, that’s an advantage for me.”
Murray has certainly captured the admiration of Ireland’s skills coach Les Kiss, who has described him as “a sponge” in the way he constantly soaks up information.
That, of course, is as it should be given Murray was no better than fourth choice for Munster and seventh or eighth in the pecking order for Ireland in the spring of 2011. He didn’t make his first start for the province until the Dragons game in March of last year and everything essentially took off after that as he went on to unseat players of the calibre of Stringer and Tomás O’Leary at Munster and Eoin Reddan with Ireland until he has now worn the green jersey 12 times.
“Rob [Penney] is known for giving young players their chance but now you feel you need to prove yourself all over again,” Murray says of the new regime taking hold in Munster. “I’ll have to impress him at training. It’s another challenge.”
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