It’s been a strange year in the rugby life of Conor Murray. Named Lions captain and then dropped for the first Test, the scrum-half has lost his Ireland place to Jamison Gibson-Park.
For all that he’s firmly No 2 in the pecking order with the national team, he remains the No 1 in terms of contractual status after penning a new IRFU contract during the Six Nations. Gibson-Park may be getting the nod from Andy Farrell, but he remains on a Leinster deal.
That contract expires in 2024, meaning he remains in line for a fourth World Cup.
Eighteen months out, he has work to do to ensure he makes that tournament. Twelve years after making a late run into the squad for New Zealand, he’s now under pressure from a host of contenders and needs to get back to his best in order to be sure of his place on the plane to France.
While Murray is not the player he was during his peak years, he remains an excellent option.
His big problem is that there is an increasingly impressive cast of alternatives who are vying for the shirt. He’s come back to the pack at a time when they are getting stronger.
Currently, Farrell’s pecking order is Gibson-Park, Murray and Craig Casey, while Caolin Blade was capped last summer.
Despite being consistently excellent for Leinster, Luke McGrath can’t get a look-in and John Cooney’s face doesn’t fit. He’s now under pressure himself, with Nathan Doak impressing for Ulster on a weekly basis. At Connacht, Kieran Marmion is enjoying a fine season.
Rarely have Ireland had such options at No 9 and tomorrow at Thomond Park Farrell will get a chance to watch four of the best in action.
For Murray, the main frustration of this season must be a simple lack of opportunity. As a centrally contracted player in his 30s who toured with the Lions, his minutes are managed. He’s expected to start against Leinster and it’ll be his first United Rugby Championship start of the season.
Out of the four scrum-halves expected to be involved at Thomond Park, Murray has played the least number of minutes with 427. Casey, Gibson-Park and McGrath have all played more than 700. Thus, it’s been difficult for the Limerick native to build his form.
He remains the No 1 at Munster where he started all four of the Heineken Champions Cup pool games, but Casey has had a lot of time in the saddle this season.
The 22-year-old has his own international ambitions and will know that he has to supplant Murray at provincial level if he’s going to get ahead of him for Ireland. So, he’ll be applying heavy pressure in training and off the bench.
Certainly, the youngster’s speed of pass and energy is in keeping with the way Ireland want to play, but Farrell values his senior players.
Murray’s seen off threats before, most notably that of Alby Mathewson who did so well as World Cup cover in 2019 that he was on the cusp of a new deal and expected to push for a starting spot until the IRFU stepped in and he ended up in Ulster, thus preserving Murray’s place at the top of the tree.
Three years on, there’s no sign that Johann van Graan wants to move on from Murray as his No 9 and the experienced man’s skill-set suits the more conservative game the South African tends to play in big games. However, most of Munster’s best performances have come when they’ve played at tempo and with width.
Against England and Scotland, he demonstrated he can do it and now he’ll hope that an extended run of big games for Munster can give him the platform to remind everyone of how good he can be when fit and well.
He’s admitted that he’s had to make a mental adjustment in the past 12 months, but he’ll believe he can be the main man again. As well as his personal ambitions, the senior scrum-half has unchecked boxes in terms of his ambition to win silverware with Munster.
The next few months are an important window when framing the last few years of a glittering career.