Brian Barry outlines why Conor Murray can now be considered the best 9 in world rugby.
Ireland emphatically outwitted South Africa at Lansdowne Road yesterday, and most of the plaudits fell upon Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney, and the new centre pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw. But behind it all, we were served another indication as to how far Conor Murray has come on in his career, and that he can be called the best 9 in world rugby at present.
When Murray initially burst onto the international scene, this writer was among the many who believed that the Limerick man was not up to standard. He used to be all about his physicality, and provided very slow ball for his backs to work with. It appeared that Murray was simply another scrum-half in the emerging line of ‘Mike Phillips wannabes’.
The box-kicking left much to be desired, and although he proved effective in the Heineken Cup, that seemed to be his level.
However, in recent seasons we have seen Murray improve tenfold. He no longer needlessly rushes into contact. While he has brought speed to his delivery, he also has become more economical with his gambits, and only darts forward when there is a genuine opening. He uses his physicality to his advantage, without being over-eager to bring the ball into contact.
His kicking game has also come on leaps and bounds. This was evident from the masterclass on display at Lansdowne yesterday evening. It was clear from the outset that Joe Schmidt sent his side out to aerially challenge the Springboks. And with every single box-kick from Murray, Ireland’s rushing players were given every chance of winning the ball.
Murray was not awarded with man of the match, nor will he be recognised as a standout performer, but he put in a flawless shift.
Murray’s assist to Tommy Bowe was phenomenal. Shane Horgan in commentary put it down to a well executed pre-rehearsed move, but it was truly a piece of instinctive beauty.
While there was a training ground back move set to take place off the Irish scrum, Jonny Sexton elected to go himself upon spotting a gap. His dart sent the South African defence into disarray, and forced Bryan Habana to move infield for cover. Murray, rushing to the breakdown, must have spotted Habana out of position, and had full faith in Tommy Bowe to be in the right place. He put a dink over the top, and the Ulster flyer did the rest. It was simple, yet genius.
Although Mike Phillips may have pioneered this new genre of the sizable scrum-half, Murray has perfected the art. It is rare these days to see Murray being outplayed by his opposite number, and he outshone Francois Hougaard yesterday evening. He possesses an all-round game, is a delight for his out-half in providing quick ball, and he does not get thrown about too easily. While some 9s produce quick ball, others a kicking game, and a few physicality, Murray has all three in abundance. Ireland can now boast the world’s best scrum-half.
Murray has grown in confidence in recent years, expanded his game, and has gained experience in spades. The 25-year-old bosses the eight men in front of him, and dictates the tempo of a game.
Having built a formidable partnership with Sexton, Murray is the best in the business and is peaking at just the right time at the dawn of a World Cup season.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.