Colm Kinsella talks to those who played a key role in Conor Murray’s rise through the ranks
WHEN Conor Murray began his third and final year with the Munster Academy 12 months ago, his ultimate goal for the season was to impress sufficiently over the season so as to nail down a full contract with the province.
The ambition might have seemed modest, but it was perfectly understandable given his lack of experience in the professional rugby game. Twenty two-year-old Murray from Patrickswell could hardly have dared to dream about how the past year would unfold, however.
His first competitive start came in March against the Dragons. Within a matter of weeks he was first choice starting scrum-half at Munster, ahead of both Peter Stringer and Tomas O’Leary in the pecking order. With each high stakes game in the Magners League, Murray proved up to the task.
A competent, solid display in the a marquee Magners League Grand Final showdown with Leinster at a sold-out Thomond Park secured his place in Ireland’s extended World Cup squad.
A first cap came against France in Bordeaux last month and on Monday came confirmation that Murray would travel to New Zealand as part of Ireland’s World Cup squad when it departs on Tuesday. Not bad for a player who also turned out for Garryowen in the AIL and Munster Senior Cup last season.
Casual observers of the game have been left stunned by the pace of Murray’s elevation. But to those who have played key roles role in the early and more recent phases of Murray’s development into a world class rugby player, the speed of his elevation has come as no great surprise.
Brian O’Donoghue was a member of the St Munchin’s College Junior Cup backroom team in 2005 when Murray made his debut in the grade. Murray’s interest in the game developed quickly during his time at the renowned Corbally rugby nursery.
O’Donoghue recalled: “I remember Conor coming out to play with us first for the Junior Cup side at the start of third year. He just never dropped a ball in training. It wasn’t in his nature. He had a strong background in GAA and the Gaelic football really stood to him.
“Conor was enthusiastic and a real hard grafter. He always listened and took advice on board. Everyone in the school is delighted with how he has progressed.”
The following March, Murray won a Schools Senior Cup medal as a replacement with St Munchin’s, when the Limerick side- which also included the World Cup-bound Keith Earls- stunned a fancied PBC outfit at Thomond Park.
Former Munster player Pat Cross was backs coach to St Munchin’s Senior Cup side of 2007 when Murray had forced his way into a starting position in the school’s senior cup team.
Pat Cross said: “We played Conor at out-half. He was very versatile, blessed with a good football brain. His passing is superb. He is a very accurate kicker too. We beat Castletroy in the quarter-final that year, but lost to CBC in Cork in the next round. Conor is a quiet, nice guy, but very competitive.”
Former Scottish international scrum half, Greig Oliver worked extensively with Murray both with Garryowen FC and at Munster.
Oliver said he first saw Murray’s potential when he spotted him playing Munster Schools’ Senior Cup. Murray joined the Garryowen Academy shortly after. Oliver said the scrum-half’s potential was evident from the outset.
“Conor has a great outlook on the game. He works hard. He learns things very quickly,” Greig Oliver said earlier this year.
“Although he is tall and some people have compared him to Welsh scrum-half Mike Phillips, I believe he brings different things to the scrum-half position. His pass is very quick. He has played a lot of other sports and that shows in his game.
“Conor’s feet positioning is very good. He can kick off both feet.
“With kicking, he is accurate and also gets good height on them. He has a lot of strings to his bow. Nothing fazes him. Conor enjoys the game and that is the most important thing.”
Limerickman man Murray made his Munster debut two years ago in a pre-season friendly against the Sale Sharks. His first competitive appearance for the province arrived in April of the following year when Connacht provided the opposition and the Limerickman was introduced into the Magners League derby clash as a blood replacement.
To date, he has made just 13 appearances for Munster, eight as a starter and five more when sprung from the replacements’ bench.
Garryowen coach, Paul Cunningham has also seen Murray’s incredibly quick development at close quarters, as the 22-year-old lined out for the ‘light blues’ in recent seasons.
Paul Cunningham said: “We are all delighted for Conor (Murray). Being selected for the World Cup is a big achievement for him and his family. He thoroughly deserves his opportunity to travel to New Zealand.
“All the pointers were there that he would be included in the squad since he broke into the Munster side and became first choice scrum half. Things have worked out really well for Conor since he has been given his chance.”