Conor Murray speaking to the media this week
It was no coincidence that Ireland’s compelling performance against Scotland in Yokohama coincided with the resurgence of one of their truly world-class players, the Munster scrum-half Conor Murray.
Ten months ago, when the All Blacks were beaten in Dublin, there were plenty who had the Patrickswell man down as the world’s best scrum-half. Murray is box-kicker of lethal accuracy, a player of instinctive brilliance when at his best. His partnership with Johnny Sexton helped propel Ireland to number two in the world rankings. And then things started to go wrong.
England came to Dublin for the first game of the 2019 Six Nations and bullied the Grand Slam champions of the previous year. Murray’s kicking and passing in that game were a long way below his best. And for the rest of the season, the confident, game-breaking Murray appeared only fitfully.
But suddenly, after a towering performance against the Scots, all seems well again.
“You look at your own performance first and foremost and I felt that during the last year I wasn’t too far off playing at my best. It’s not as if it went drastically wrong,” Murray said at a press conference on Thursday after being named to start against Japan in Shizuoka on Saturday.
“As a nine or a 10, you’re going to get the plaudits when things go well and probably a little bit more criticism when things don’t go to plan. It’s something through my career that I have gotten used to.
“At times I’ve probably struggled with it, but I’m aware of the way things work. For me, I just focus on trying to get better, on trying to play as well as I know I can, week on week.”
The match against the host nation will be the 30-year-old’s 11th World Cup appearance. Murray came from nowhere to become Ireland’s starting scrum-half in the 2011 tournament and while the trajectory since has been mostly up, there have been a few difficult patches too.
Referring to criticism of his form since that England game in February, he said: “I didn’t pay too much attention to that. You have people asking you if you’re OK and how’s your form, but I’d seen that before and I think I know how to deal with it.
"Last week was a nice way to kick off the World Cup. It was a good, decent performance from us. Personally, to get up and running and get into the game, to have a good few contacts and quite a lot of involvements, was nice.”
On Saturday, he’ll have Connacht’s Jack Carty alongside him, with coach Joe Schmidt preferring to allow Sexton more time to recover from a knock picked up against the Scots.
Murray’s vast experience contrasts starkly with that of Carty, who makes only his second test start, but the two-tour Lion has no concerns about his half-back partner’s temperament.
“He's quite a calm character, Jack. He has gotten to grips with the way we play - the tactics and the phase calls and what's expected of him.”
Murray’s Munster team-mate Chris Farrell was outstanding at inside centre when called into the fray against Scotland early in the first half. Regarded by many as a marginal selection for the 31-man squad, he now looks potentially the biggest bolter, as competition for places hots up with the knock-out stages just over three weeks away.
“He’s got soft hands,” Murray said of the combative Farrell. “He’s a great player and I’ve enjoyed playing with him since he’s been with Munster. For such a big fella he can move quickly – he has that subtlety with his hands.
“He’s such a presence in defence as well. He’s really good at communicating and leaves you in no doubt as to what to do, so it’s a selection headache at centre, I presume.
“Chris has had a few chances and has impressed any time he’s got a run at it, so yeah – an incredible athlete and a great fella to have alongside you.”
The atmosphere on Saturday will “definitely go up a level”, he added, while flanked by defence coach Andy Farrell at a press conference at Ireland’s training centre in the rather remote surrounds of Yumeria, near Shizuoka.
“It’s going to be really tough out there. Even though there are going to be a lot of Irish fans there, it’s a home game, obviously, for the Japanese – so they are going to create an awful lot of noise.
“We’ve great respect for the Japanese, especially the lads who came and toured here two years ago.
“It’s a really special occasion. Huge game for them, huge game for us. These occasions don’t come around that often, particularly getting to play the host nation.
“They play at a frantic pace if you let them and it could be a long day if you’re not on top of things.”
On last Sunday’s evidence, Murray is back on top of his own game. His timing has been exemplary and all of Ireland will hope that there is more to come from him.