“Earlsie always slags me that I wasn’t much good at rugby in school and that’s why I was an unused sub in the senior cup final!” Widely regarded now as one of the best in the world in his position, that wasn’t always the case for Munster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions scrum-half Conor Murray.
I meet Murray in the massive RAW gym in Dublin, at the relaunch of Maximuscle, for whom he is an ambassador, on Thursday.
It’s been a long day for him as he is peppered with questions from TV, print, online and radio journalists throughout the afternoon about his shoulder/nerve injury, a complaint which he thankfully reveals has reached its conclusion.
When we sit down near the end of the event in a separate room, perched on a pair of exercise bikes, he is still polite, alert and engaging as we get into how it all started for him and chat all things Lions.
While now one of the most recognisable figures in Irish rugby and a two-time Six Nations champion, Pro12 champion, soon-to-be double Lions tourist and one of the first names on the teamsheet both at international level under Joe Schmidt, and with his province, what isn’t as well known about the 28-year-old, are his career beginnings and the speed with which everything happened for him.
Sport works in funny ways. West Ham United, the self-professed ‘academy of football’, went through a golden period between 1996 and 1999, producing the likes of Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Joe Cole from their youth teams. The captain from their glorious 9-0 aggregate victory in the FA Youth Cup final in 1999 though? A man named Izzy Iriekpen.
This season’s PFA Premier League footballer of the year was Chelsea’s diminutive midfielder N’Golo Kante. A man who spent some 10 years of his formative career playing in the ninth-tier of French football with Paris based club JS Suresnes, untouched by bigger clubs in the country because of his small stature.
Youth team sport therefore is impactful, but it is evidently not the be-all and end-all.
As Murray explains, he didn’t get onto the pitch for his school St. Munchin’s in their victorious Munster Schools Senior Cup final in 2006, and began the U18 season out of the matchday squads altogether. Something he reveals was also the case for another would-be Munster Lion around the same time.
“Yeah it happened really quickly,” Murray admits. “I suppose I started playing for the U18’s and I think me and Pete O’Mahony at the start of our U18’s schools campaign were the 23rd and 24th man at the time.
“There was only 22 in a squad then so we were not even the subs, we were the reserve reserves, so we kind of joke about that now looking back.”
Historically, the senior Irish schools cups have taken on huge significance in the country. The role of honour as to who has won it is astounding. From Munster alone, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, David Wallace, Jerry Flannery, Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo and the subject of Murray’s very own quote above, Keith Earls, have all tasted glory in the competition.
Lions, Grand Slam winners, European Cup champions, Six Nations champions. In Leinster, the likes of Denis Hickie, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll shone at schools level, as did Luke Fitzgerald, Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery more recently.
It has been a breeding ground for the best of the best in Irish rugby. A hotbed for rugby talent, and a central pool from which provinces would offer academy contracts.
Yet Murray’s offer came late in the day as he was very nearly missed altogether. Once there, he made his professional debut in April 2010 just after the Six Nations window. A replacement against Connacht as he came on to play the grand total of one minute. His only appearance of the season.
He had to wait a full year until April 2011 to make his European debut for Munster against Brive. Six months later he was starting a World Cup quarter-final for Ireland against Wales in New Zealand. So how did it all happen for him?
“I went into U19’s, and we split into clubs from schools when you’re U19’s, and I played for the club side and we won the inter-pro and then played for the Ireland U19’s.
“From there, I went on to the U20’s and then got into the academy at Munster and that was a big moment.
“I remember playing golf with my dad in Castletroy in Limerick and getting a phone call off of Ian Sherwin to say that there was an offer there for an academy contract. I obviously said yes straight away and it kind of hit me then that I was on the path to something, as in there’s an opportunity here to go and do something.
“I just put my head down in the academy and did as best as I could and really enjoyed my rugby with Garryowen and the Munster A team. Then in 2011, Peter Stringer was away with Ireland and Tomas [O’Leary] was injured and Tony McGahan put me into the Munster team, which was great. I got in and things went pretty well for me when I was in there.
“Then Peter was back from Irish camp and I just presumed, because we were playing Leinster in the derby game, that Strings was back and he’d start and I’d just go back to the bench because I think Tomas was still injured, and I was even excited about that.
“But then he named the team for the Leinster game and I was still starting, and that was a moment where I just thought to myself, ‘wow, I’m able for this’, and from that moment on I didn’t look back.
“We went on to win the league that year, beating Leinster in the final, and then the World Cup that summer, being called into that squad, it really did happen quite quickly and every squad I was called into I just went in, kept my head down and just worked away and did as best as I could.”
Indeed the extended squad for Declan Kidney’s 2011 World Cup picks didn’t even include Murray originally.
Kidney picked Eoin Reddan, Tomas O’Leary, Isaac Boss and Peter Stringer, with the intention of bringing three of the four down to New Zealand, before Murray’s late addition to the set-up.
He made his test debut that summer in one of the warm-up games against France and by the time of World Cup squad selection he had just two Irish caps behind him, zero starts at international level and no appearances even in Europe’s premier club competition by that point either. His two appearances in Europe had come in the Challenge Cup that season.
Murray had also only just signed his first professional contract with Munster at the end of that campaign, a two-year deal. Yet he made the 30-man World Cup squad. A shock to everyone in the country, including himself at the time: “I still hadn’t really realised what had happened. Everything’s happened quicker than I expected,” Murray said back in 2011.
Rarely has a player ever had such a consistent and progressive incremental performance increase, in response to faith shown in him from coaches than Murray.
His career has only ever been an arc that has curved upward, and one which initially moved at a truly astonishing pace. Something easy to forget when we watch his reliably classy displays today.
From there he established himself as Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half, but his selection in the Lions squad ahead of Danny Care was another bolt from the blue, a decision you can watch being discussed by the Lions coaching staff on the 2013 documentary.
If he was odds on to make Warren Gatland’s Lions panel last month, he was an outside bet to make it in 2013. And yet despite starting the tour as firmly third choice, he grew into a position whereby he made two test appearances off the bench, bringing a massive impact particularly to the crucial final test in Sydney.
As was widely denoted afterwards, would there have been a fourth test on that tour Murray would almost certainly have started it.
As such, I ask him how different it was watching the news that he had made the Lions squad this time around compared to 2013, and it’s fascinating to note the nuanced disparity in behavior.
“Yeah it was very different,” he said. “Four years ago I was living with two of the [Munster] lads, Mike Sherry and Sean Scanlon. Mike was at training, so Sean was downstairs and I was having a lie in in bed and I knew it was going to be announced that day, so I was quite nervous because you’re always holding out that hope that you will be selected.
“He roared up at me that the Sky Sports News broadcast of the squad announcement had started so he was like, ‘get up out of bed and come down!’. I came down anyway and I was watching it and I was really nervous, he was like, ‘how’re you feeling?!’, I was just telling him to go away from me and to shut up!
“Then you get called out and you can see your face on the screen and it’s just a massive feeling, massive excitement. Really proud feeling, just awesome.
“Then we were celebrating and I went into town and met all my family, there were a few relations there as well, and you know everyone was watching but no one had really said anything because I was a bit of an outside hope, so there was just huge relief and pride.
“This year, the Munster lads had training and I wasn’t on the pitch session so Aled Walters our fitness coach said I could go home and watch it if I wanted to.
“My mum was in work so she just popped out to a pub next door and watched it on her own I think. She was in town so my dad came round to my house and we watched it together, which was really nice.
“And while I was probably a little bit more hopeful then I was in 2013, you’re still nervous, you still don’t know and you’re really unsure so when my name came out, I just had a nice moment with my dad and was really happy.”
In 2013, there were big celebrations with all the family who had been as nervous as him. That touch of doubt beforehand gave way to immense pride and joy. In 2017, there was a quiet moment of satisfaction with his dad and a mother who popped around the corner from work to watch it on her own. No great gathering or party. Relief. Not so much an expectation but a fulfilment.
“Having been on one tour before where it was fantastic and it was so new and everything, this time around, inside I was still as excited and still had as much pride and it was still as good a feeling as I’ve had, just because it’s so hard to get on and you need to hit so many things along the way over the four years to do that. It’s just a really good moment where the hard work pays off and the sacrifices are worth it.”
Going down to New Zealand, Murray is now part of an exclusive club of Irish rugby players. The first group to beat the All Blacks.
That win in Chicago was perhaps his finest performance in a green shirt to date. A scintillatingly effective display, up there with the best I have ever witnessed from an individual player.
Rock solid defence around the fringes, crisp, slick passing, an inch perfect kicking game, relentless work rate and a clever try to boot. His chase up the pitch to put Julian Savea behind his own try-line with five minutes to go to earn the scrum which Ireland were to score their winning try off of, typified the Ireland team that day. An unyielding and insatiable drive. They were not going to be caught again. Not that day.
Heading down as a Lion in the prime of his career and as a player frequently mentioned among the best in the world, one would imagine Murray’s goals have changed from the last tour.
“Yeah definitely. I suppose the last tour, being an outside bet, I just wanted to go out there, play as best as I can, make as good an impression on the coaches and lads as I can, get on with everyone and just enjoy it.
“All those still exist this time around but I got a taste of test action the last time and I’m really really hungry for that now.
“It’s a level playing field, it’s a blank canvas in terms of the nines and all the players going out there so it’s a case of who plays best I presume. That’ll be really exciting and all the rivalry that’s there and the competition for places.
“I’m sure everyone will bring out the best in each other and that’s when you play your best rugby so that’s the really exciting part.”
Racing 92 scrum-half James Hart is joining Munster next season as a young player aspiring to have the sort of explosive impact and growth Murray had six years ago.
When I ask if things have sort of come full circle for him and if he sees himself as someone who, having reached that level of world class experience and performance, can guide and aid a young scrum-half’s development, his answer illustrates a competitive edge, yet one which retains his humility.
“You don’t really see yourself as a mentor or that but I suppose putting myself in my younger shoes back in the day, I was looking up to Tomas and Strings and just watching them, talking to them and learning off them.
“He’s [Hart] coming to Munster and he obviously wants to play first team rugby so he’s competition for me, but in that I get on well with rivals and competitors. Like talking about [Lions contenders] Ben [Youngs] and Rhys [Webb], I know them and any time I’m with Ben we get on really well and we chat together, and the same with Rhys.
“I just get on and try to offer whatever bit of advice I can. With lads coming into the Irish set-up, you know they are competing for the jersey but at the same time you want to help each other out, and you want to win as a team, so where you can you give each other advice, you do.
“You can learn things off people younger than you as well, 100 per cent, it’s not always the older guy who has all the answers.”
From that, it is clear Murray has developed not just into a player of supreme talent and potential, but one focused, determined, firm. A winner.
He’s a long way from that St Munchin’s bench now.
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