By Phil Rice
During the closing minutes of the historic match between Ireland and the All Blacks in Chicago last November, Conor Murray, who had run himself into the ground and was most peoples man of the match, kicked a hopeful punt which bounced towards the New Zealand in-goal area.
Irish players chased after it as All Black speedster Julian Savea picked it up and considered countering. Before he could blink he was grabbed and flung into touch in goal by none other than Conor Murray.
Ireland won the resultant scrum and Henshaw scored. The rest is history.
This epitomised the selfless work rate and commitment that Murray demonstrates week in week out for club and country. It is why he is considered by most astute judges to be the best and most valuable scrum half in world rugby.
He is every coaches dream, unless your team is playing against him. He has been criticised for excessive box kicking but he has turned the box kick into an art form. His accurate judgement of height and distance has come from relentless practice and hard work and his kicks invariably result in gaining considerable ground for his team while putting opposition blindside wingers under pressure and opposition forwards in retreat. It has become a powerful weapon in his armoury.
In the recent European Champions Cup match between Glasgow Warriors and Munster, it became clear that Glasgow saw Murray as the man who makes Munster tick.
They paid him the highest compliment by targeting him for a hit at every opportunity. Relentlessly he was clobbered after he had passed or kicked the ball.
Despite pointing this out to the referee the attacks continued until it became clear to Glasgow that this was a futile strategy as the Munster scrum half could not only handle the hits but they certainly weren’t affecting his game adversely.
Although not directly involved with the match Joe Schmidt felt compelled to comment on Murray’s treatment by Glasgow. He was angry that Murray could potentially have incurred a serious injury by the treatment. He commented, “What happened in that match is done and dusted now but Conor was lucky not to have his knee blown out by one of the late tackles.
“I certainly don’t anticipate anything like that happening in the Scottish match.”
Scottish Coach and erstwhile coaching colleague of Schmidt at Clermont Auvergne, Vern Cotter, commented on the match saying, “I’ve talked to the Glasgow coaches and the players and it was not a deliberate tactic to injure Conor Murray.
“He’s a key member of the team, as any half-back or decision-maker is, so there was pressure applied on him.
“There will be pressure applied on players, but all done within the laws.”
It will be interesting to see how the Scottish players interpret ‘pressure.’
Murray commented after the game regarding the frequency with which his standing leg was targeted after he kicked the ball. He said, “I’m properly p****d off about that. I don’t see any benefit in charging down someone’s standing leg, I only see it as a danger or as a potential to get someone injured.
“I don’t think it’s a good tactic. You could put another label on that type of tactic. I was fortunate not to suffer knee ligament damage. I’m not blaming the players. I don’t know who told them to do it but it’s dangerous.”
The referee for this weeks match will be Romain Poite, who is generally quite strict on foul play and isn’t afraid to brandish his cards and certainly doesn’t like back chat.
Last year he yellow carded an Oyonnax player for offside and received a tirade of abuse from the player, Poite promptly pulled out the red card.
The 27 year old Murray is a mature player who exudes patience and control and his calm but forceful demeanour is a powerful influence on his team mates. He leads by example and certainly doesn’t shy from the physical side of the game.
After the Autumn series Joe Schmidt commented on the improved quality of the reserves at his disposal but added, “You get a guy like Conor Murray, who can control a game like he did in Chicago, you don’t suddenly slip somebody in and expect him to play at the same level.
“I think no matter what teams you look at in the world, there are players who make a difference every time they play.”
Let’s hope Murray has an injury free Six Nations and steps up to his rightful place as number nine in a Lions shirt in New Zealand.