Conor Murray will make his first appearance of the season for Munster on Saturday. This is a big season for Murray as Munster and Ireland‘s hopes lay heavily on his shoulders. There is also the small matter of a British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand at the end of it all. The Ireland scrumhalf’s return couldn’t come at a better time for Munster after their defeat to the Cardiff Blues in Cork last week. It was a very close game at Irish Independent Park, and a litany of poor decisions from Munster’s halfbacks cost them badly (Three Red Kings cover this in more detail).
Why Conor Murray is so important to Munster
Munster’s lack of direction last Friday was nothing new. Their backline has severely lacked experience since Ronan O’Gara retired. Ian Keatley is still yet to step up to the plate as a fulltime outhalf. In fact, last season was Keatley’s worst of his career, culminating in fans booing him at Thomond Park against Leicester (Irish Independent). To compound matters, the man that stepped up to replace Keatley, Johnny Holland, has just retired through injury. This leaves Munster with only one viable option at 10, the injury ravaged Tyler Bleyendaal.
Teams can overcome bad fly-halves, but they need a great 9 to do it. Ulster got to a Heineken Cup final relying on Ruan Pienaar. Dimitri Yachvili led France to a World Cup final, and Biarritz to two Heineken Cup finals too. Last Friday, Munster started with error prone Duncan Williams. Williams is thirty years old, in his eighth season as a pro, and yes hasn’t come close to being first choice. Tomas O’Leary, who came off the bench, struggled to improve matters. O’Leary is very much a product of mid 2000s rugby – an aggressive 9 more focused on pace and power than passing. He peaked in 2010 and hasn’t come close since. Conor Murray is vital partly because he can be that Pienaar figure, but also because Rassie Erasmus can’t trust the alternatives.
Why is Conor Murray so crucial for Ireland?
Ireland’s lack of test ready scrumhalves has been the subject of many column inches already this season (LWOS). Now that Eoin Reddan has retired, the only viable understudy to Murray is Kieran Marmion. Marmion is clearly talented, but has yet to get serious game time at test level. This means the 50 times capped Murray has to start most big games this season. Those games include two tests against New Zealand, one against Australia and an almost impossible Six Nations schedule. While Scotland and Italy may present the chance to experiment, Joe Schmidt won’t want to risk losing either of the first two games of the championship. This leaves only the Canada test in November at the Aviva Stadium for Marmion to start.
On top of his experience, Murray is a key cog in the Joe Schmidt machine. His box kicking is world class, and Ireland use it extensively with chasers like Andrew Trimble. He is also responsible for triggering “power plays”, such as Robbie Henshaw‘s try against England in 2015. In open play, Murray combines very well with the Ireland pack. The way he dances around the back of a ruck creates space for the likes of CJ Stander and Iain Henderson. If Ireland are to get back to the winning ways of 2014 and 2015, Conor Murray must feature heavily.
Murray should travel with the Lions
The British and Irish Lions will be the big talking point throughout this season. Though it’s hard to imagine the Lions beating New Zealand, the challenge represents the pinnacle of a player’s career. The 2013 tour to Australia established Murray as a top class 9, having finished the tour the form scrumhalf. His improvement over the tour was largely credited to Wales backs coach Rob Howley. Working with Howley sped up his delivery, to the point where it went from a weakness to a massive strength. The Munster 9’s pass is now one of the fastest and cleanest in the international game.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland will coach the Lions again after the series win in 2013 (LWOS). Gatland has not only coached Murray before, but also loves a big scrumhalf. Mike Phillips was an ever present member of Gatland’s Six Nations winning sides. Phillips role as almost a fourth backrow forward is one Murray can play too. Murray is a mere three centimetres and six kilograms smaller than Phillips. No other option is close.
England’s first choice is Ben Youngs, also a 2013 tourist, but his erratic performances mean he may not hold that place through to March. Scotland have Greig Laidlaw, but his goal kicking likely won’t be needed. Wales may very well provide the other two (assuming three nines tour). Both Rhys Webb and Gareth Davies are prolific try scorers and are hard to choose between. A combo of Murray starting and Webb off the bench will probably be the Lions best bet. Obviously all of this could change in the next eight months or so, but it’s worth looking forward to.
All in all, there’s a lot of pressure on the 27 year old Limerick man, but this could be a huge year for Conor Murray.