If he had his way, the Munster head coach would have wrapped his star scrum-half in cotton wool for the rest of the championship, never to grace the Six Nations again and it will have been only half-jokingly that the South African made that very plea to Ireland boss Joe Schmidt in the aftermath of Saturday’s Irish victory.
Murray got up and finished the game, even kicking a vital 74th-minute penalty as half-back partner Johnny Sexton received treatment, to help the national team keeps its unbeaten start to the 2018 tournament intact. While his tenacity made van Graan proud, the Munster chief would like to see him back in red when the province welcomes Toulon to Thomond Park on March 31 for their Champions Cup quarter-final.
Did van Graan wince when he saw Murray go down? Yes, he did. Did he fear the worst? Absolutely.
“I spoke to Joe after the game and the two of us had a laugh and I said to him you must rest Conor now for the next two Irish games and make him available for Munster.
“I think everybody in Ireland knows how important he is to Irish rugby and to Munster rugby. He is one of our world-class players in our team and I believe, together with Sexton for Ireland, when those two play, Ireland win. So, not only for Munster but Irish rugby, it’s very important he stays fit and I was very glad when he got up.”
Murray’s goal-kicking, particularly from long-range, is becoming a very useful weapon for both Munster and Ireland and yesterday van Graan acknowledged that it was the 28-year-old’s hunger and determination, even as a lineout jumper, that helped mark him out as a world-class scrum-half.
“The fact that he puts distance on his kicks. When you concede penalties in those positions he’s a real threat and in that Racing game, most important to me, you look at his reaction, he wants the ball in his hands. He hasn’t done it consistently but he wants to take the kick, that’s the sign of a world-class player.
“He jumps for Ireland also now, as well, which was nice to see.
“You know, you can’t say enough about Conor Murray. His work-rate, what he brings to the team, his calm demeanour. He’s the type of player who’s got no fear. He’s such a natural talent.”
Van Graan, who joined Munster in November after serving as an assistant coach with both the Bulls in Super Rugby and South Africa, so admires Murray he likened him to Springbok scrum-half legend Fourie du Preez, both of whom he considers in possession of rugby genius.
“I’ve said it about one player that I’ve coached before and I think he’s the same. A talent hits a target that nobody else can hit, but a genius hits a target nobody else can see. He sees things other players don’t and Ireland are very lucky to have him at this stage.”
The other player was du Preez and van Graan added: “Fourie’s a player I coached for a very long time and, in the big games, he always wanted the ball. Conor Murray is the same type of player. He seems to want it. The more the game gets tough and the higher the pressure gets, he seems to say: ‘Listen, just give me the ball.’”
Another Munster player making himself heard against the Welsh in Dublin last Saturday was man of the match and Six Nations debutant Chris Farrell, the outside centre whose communication skills as a defensive leader earned the praise of Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale.
“I’d like to think that most of our guys are good communicators, but he is a good communicator and especially defending at 13,” said van Graan.
“I’ve never defended at 13, but most people know that that’s the most difficult position to defend. In terms of your 12, your inside, your wings and your full-back on the outside, whenever 13 is set and in a good position and is a good communicator it does make their roles a lot easier. I think, firstly, Ireland did something different from the kick-offs which brought his physicality into the game the way he chased. The most important thing for me is his decision-making. “He seemed very confident in his role and every action, whether it was in the tackle or in defence, he seemed in control.”