Ireland lost out to England in Twickenham on Saturday evening, and while the Red Rose were deserving winners, there were several positives from an Irish perspective, not least the introduction of Stuart McCloskey, Josh Van Der Flier and Ultan Dillane.
However, there were other worrying signs. Ireland were under pressure for most of the game as they were on the back foot. When receiving the ball, Jonathan Sexton was moving backwards as the English defensive line were rushing up on him.
There are few out-halves in world rugby who can control a game off the back foot, and nobody has done so successfully and consistently since Ronan O’Gara.
It must be examined as to why Ireland were on the back foot. CJ Stander et al had their work cut out at the breakdown due to the raw physicality of James Haskell, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola.
Nonetheless, despite being pushed back, Ireland were still under a disproportionate amount of pressure.
Why is this?
Conor Murray’s distribution was not slower than usual, but the English were able to exploit his lack of speed better than previous opponents.
When a 35-year-old replaces you and the overall speed of the game is increased significantly, there is something wrong. Eoin Reddan’s introduction gave Sexton and Co. an extra few yards to manoeuvre before the defenders arrived.
Murray’s extra step with the ball before passing is a habit that held him back earlier in his career.
When looking at the great passers of the ball, like Peter Stringer, they do not take a step when they pick up the ball, but rather pass straight from the base of the breakdown.
Meanwhile Murray takes two or three steps before distribution, which puts the backs under pressure. Indeed, he threw a hospital pass to Sexton in the first half on Saturday when Ireland were pinned back in their own try area. The Leinster man did incredibly well to throw a dummy and relieve the pressure.
This extra step is a habit that he successfully kicked on the Lions’ tour in 2013. It is this writer’s speculation that working with Rob Howley helped him to correct it, and he went on to become arguably the world’s best 9 in 2014.
However, in the past few months, he has redeveloped this habit, and Ireland have suffered as a result.
Ireland will continue to struggle if Murray does not fix this, and Sexton will not hit his former heights without the advantage of time in which to play.
It must be acknowledged that Murray is the only Irish player to score a try in this tournament, and he has done so twice. His power to muscle over the line from a short distance is certainly an asset, but the pros of his inclusion must be weighed against the cons.
The fact that not one other Irish player has scored a try over three games has a lot to do with slow ball from the ruck.
It could be argued that while he has scored two tries, he is to blame for Ireland’s lack of penetration out wide.
The next question turns to replacements. At present, Ireland do not boast a scrum-half of true international quality.
Murray’s current deputies are Leinster pair Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss. However, at the start of a new World Cup cycle, one must question the merit of playing a 35-year-old.
As the remaining games against Italy and Scotland are relative dead rubbers, Joe Schmidt could do a lot worse than giving Kieran Marmion the experience of a Six Nations test game.
Marmion is not a stand-out scrum-half, but does the simple things well, the importance of which is often overlooked. Anybody who watches Connacht play rugby will know that he is as efficient a 9 as there is in Ireland.
Other options looking into the next few years are John Poland and Stephen Kerins, who have both impressed for Ireland u20s to date in the Six Nations this year, the former being one of the best players in the loss to Wales, while Kerins was part of the team that recorded a remarkable win over England on Friday.
There are options available at 9 for Ireland, and Schmidt should not be so narrow-minded as to think Conor Murray is indispensable. The Munster man cannot hold onto his spot because of reputation forever.
This is not to say that Murray is not the long-term option for Ireland, but he needs to correct a blatant flaw in his game if he is to keep a hold of the number 9 jersey all the way to Japan in 2019.
Read More About: conor murray, England, eoin reddan, Ireland, isaac boss, Joe Schmidt, John Poland, kieran marmion, Lions, Munster, rob howley, Rugby, scrum-half, Six Nations, Stephen Kerins, Top Story, twickenham