There is a zip gone in the pass and teams have cottoned on to it
Conor Murray really had us spoiled for a while there.
The Munster scrum-half handled himself well in his breakthrough season in Test rugby, 2011/12, and came of age on the summer tour to New Zealand. He never looked back.
The following summer, 2013, he toured Australia with the Lions and deputised for Mike Phillips in that Test Series victory. He returned from that tour an even better player and has been consistently one of Munster and Ireland’s best since then.
He injured his neck in the 2017 Six Nations loss to Wales, in Cardiff, but returned to play a key role for the Lions as the shared a Test Series with the All Blacks. Murray scored two tries, kicked two penalties and set up another three scores when Ireland won the 2018 Grand Slam.
He toured Australia with his country but his neck issue flared up again and it sidelined him for five months until he stepped out in Munster red at the end of November. He did not look to have missed a beat in his first four or five games but he appears to be carrying a knock again. He is still good, but he is not great. Not as great as we expect him to be.
Against England, his passing radar faltered under immense pressure from the likes of Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry & Co. His passing lacked that zip necessary to get Ireland whirring against the Scots and, despite his try, his performance left many concerned.
In Rome, against Italy, Murray was distinctly off-colour for the first 50 minutes. During that time, he had the ball 57 times. He kicked or box-kicked seven times and passed the ball away – without much sharpness – 50 times. He made no carries and did little to keep the Italian defence on their toes. He also missed all three of the tackles he attempted.
Near the end of a first half that started well for Ireland before errors cost them dearly, Murray stood over a ruck as Tito Tebaldi nipped in to steal the ball from Jacob Stockdale. As Murray appealed for a penalty from Glen Jackson, he tried to stop his opposite number but Tebaldi wrestled clear and the break was on.
It was odd to see the usually physical and abrasive Murray bypassed with such ease.
Johnny Sexton, another player looking off-colour, could not take the conversion after Keith Earls put Ireland back in front so Murray obliged by slotting the extras. As the visitors sought the bonus point, Murray once again had the ball yanked from his grasp.
Italian lock David Pisi spotted the scrumhalf in two minds, as Ireland’s maul was slowed down, and stuck out a ball to get his side a turnover. It was an uncharacteristic lapse from Murray.
It was not Murray’s finest game and few who wore the green jersey at Stadio Olimpico today could claim it they excelled. Peter O’Mahony was at his niggly best, Ultan Dillane ran his legs to stumps and Keith Earls was the best of the backline. Everyone else was average, or just below.
However, the end result is Ireland got the bonus point win and are back in the championship hunt. Beat France on March 10 and they should have a title decider against Wales the following weekend.
That bonus point was secured when Murray stepped up with a fine score. Ireland were still having lineout issues but sub Niall Scannell managed to locate O’Mahony and the rolling maul had Italy in trouble. Murray was not willing to let the Italians drag it down and re-set so he yoinked the ball away from Josh van der Flier and dived for the line.
When Ireland needed someone to step up, Conor Murray obliged
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) February 24, 2019
That was Murray’s ninth try in the Guinness Six Nations and his 15th overall for Ireland, just about keeping Jacob Stockdale (14 tries in 17 Tests) at bay.
The Limerick native also had two try assists in the game, taking his competition total to 18. With those two ‘A’s’, Murray moved beyond the previous record holders Jonny Wilkinson and Ronan O’Gara, who were on 17.
Nine tries and 18 assists in 34 Six Nations appearances. Add to that his three conversions, two penalties and umpteen precise box-kicks and you will see how vital he is to the Irish cause.
One hopes another week and a half on the training paddock gets that passing dialled in for the championship run-in.