During their Six Nations triumphs in 2014 and 2015, Ireland were used to star names being talismans.
Back then it was Paul O’Connell up front and Brian O’Driscoll in the outside backs, with Jonny Sexton as the third musketeer. But with retirements to O’Connell and O’Driscoll, and injuries and age meaning Sexton is not the player of two years ago, is the out-half still Ireland’s most irreplaceable player?
When fit, Sexton remains Ireland’s pivot, the conductor of the team’s attacking play. But with the Leinster number 10 still searching for his best form, I would argue that his Irish half-back partner, Conor Murray, is currently the player Joe Schmidt would least like to be without.
That is not to say that Murray and Sexton are necessarily Ireland’s best players. The team’s finest operators are in the loose forwards. But Ireland’s back row is so strong that even if they were without one of Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony or Jamie Heaslip, they have players like CJ Stander and Iain Henderson that could come in without diminishing the power of the Irish pack.
That being the case, it comes down to Sexton or Murray as the least replaceable player in the Ireland team.
Sexton in 2014 and 2015 was arguably the finest out-half in the world, and while his thinking is still sharp, his feet and body are wearier. Needless to say, he is injury-prone.
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Murray, a British and Irish Lion like Sexton, is harder to replace – not least because Ireland have limited depth at scrum-half. It is to try and fix this paucity of options that the IRFU declined Ulster’s petition to retain the services of Springbok No. 9 Ruan Pienaar, who has been an extraordinarily influential figure at Ravenhill.
The problem at No. 9 is regarded as so severe that the need to get another Ireland-qualified scrum-half playing for one of the provinces is deemed to outweigh benefits wrought by Pienaar’s wealth of international experience and mentoring young players.
Take nothing away from Ireland, with 14 men they showing us how to play rugby in our own back yard.
Connor Murray ripping us apart again. 😱
— Carlo Bessenger (@carlobessie9) June 11, 2016
Elsewhere, Tomás O’Leary has fallen by the wayside and the principal alternatives, Connacht’s Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath at Leinster, lack Murray’s vast experience. For Schmidt, who values player know-how more than most coaches, Murray is a crucial figure.
And aside from Murray’s approach to the game, he also possess fine key skills for a scrum-half. Just as Sexton’s kicking game pins oppositions in their own half, Murray’s box-kicking is a central part of Schmidt’s pragmatic approach to possession. Andrew Trimble, for one, clearly relishes Murray’s accuracy from the boot.
Murray also has one of the best passes from the base in the northern hemisphere. His crisp distribution gets Ireland moving on a regular basis – whether applying pressure through their forwards or going wide to the backs.
And to complement these core half-back abilities, Murray is the most physical number nine in the world right now. Whilst this wouldn’t be a particularly useful attribute for an All Black scrum-half, with Ireland’s style of play it can be invaluable. At times, Murray is almost a ninth forward.
Connor Murray is an ideal link between Ireland’s bruisers up front and the flashier ones behind the scrum – as a result, he is the irreplaceable cog in Joe Schmidt’s machine.
Daniel Rey, Pundit Arena
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