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Dublin: -2 °C Sunday 18 March, 2018

'A week you dream of': Watching on as an U20 in '09, Conor Murray is ready to fulfill Grand ambition

The scrum-half watched Rory Best and Rob Kearney from a safe distance as they won a Grand Slam nine years ago, this weekend he intends to help them do it again.

IN SOME WAYS Ireland’s last Grand Slam doesn’t feel long ago at all.

Ronan O'Gara celebrates scoring the winning drop goal with Brian O'Driscoll Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s only nine years – a blink compared to wait between 1948 and 2009 – the Millennium Stadium is still standing, Rory Best and Rob Kearney are still challenging at the very highest level, Wayne Barnes is still among World Rugby’s go-to referees and, whether this is the people’s game or not, about a million viewers will tune in to TV3 this Saturday to see if there is a third ever Irish Slam to be celebrated.

For many of us, it’s the particulars of personal circumstance that have changed as we look back and consider our vantage point for Ronan O’Gara’s ‘manky’ magnificent drop-goal.

Conor Murray was already making himself comfortable in green having played a part in Ireland’s second-place finish in that year’s U20 Six Nations.

Rory Pitman with Conor Murray Rory Pitman runs at Murray in 2009. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

He no longer plays second fiddle to any scrum-half the world over, but for the age grade finale in Llanelli, Murray was a replacement playing back-up to Matt Healy as Ireland dug out a 9 – 6 win. The squad returned to Dublin the following day and many remained together to watch the senior drama unfold in centre Eamonn Sheridan’s apartment.

Days like that, and potentially like the Saturday ahead, can leave an indellible imprint on those who would follow in the players’ footsteps. On occasions such as this, standards are set and possibilities are extended.

“You look back to all the big Ireland victories when you were younger, looking on the telly or in the stands and it just drives your desire to want to be there,” said Murray as the Ireland squad gently began ramping up to a climactic finish from Carton House yesterday.

“That’s probably what feeds a lot of us from when we were younger, seeing it and wanting to achieve it, and putting the work in for it, seeing those great days.

“And then when you get in and you chat to the lads, like Rob and Rory and a few of the lads who have gone from Ireland now, chatting to them about it, they’re special days and you create a bond for life with the people you do it with.

“So yeah, massive. Massively inspirational.”

From that same U20s crop, Peter O’Mahony echoed the same sentiment when he was preparing to take on France in 2014 with a Six Nations title on the line. Now he’s won three, yet still hungry for the Slam that would put an extra shine on his collection.

“Since you’re small, you’ve wanted to play in games like this, for trophies. It’s why you play, it’s the reason the sport is so great; to compete in these kind of games,” the Corkman said in 2014.

Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I remember I couldn’t watch for the last kick; it meant so much to everyone and it was a great occasion.”

There will be a plethora of nervy moments ahead, but there is a sense that this is a team that has already shown their big-game credentials and a knack for making history – with the notable exception of taking a World Cup semi-final place.

They have 11 straight wins under their belt, a run started when they denied England a record and a Grand Slam, they’ve won in South Africa and, still the stand-out result of all, they have beaten the back-to-back world champion All Blacks.

Just as they showed in Chicago, the big day is no time to let nerves restrict the ambition.

“Occasions like this,” says Murray, “massive games with a lot of pressure, that’s the challenge that you don’t go into your shell and you tighten things up (so) you don’t express yourself.

Conor Murray Baller. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“What this group is really is good at, we are coached really well and we have our gameplan and structure, but there is a lot of natural ability in the group.

“People play heads-up rugby, people play football, people back themselves in certain instances and we can’t lose it in the challenge of this week, this game. People with those kind of instincts don’t shy away from that, because that adds so much to our gameplan and to what we are trying to do.

“I don’t think anything will change. We will obviously have a look at England, look at opportunities, obviously their strengths and dealing with that but we can’t lose that natural kind of heads-up approach we have.”

Conor Murray Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

He adds: ”you want it to all go well and be full of joy at the end of the game on Saturday.

“What happened with England last year was fantastic for us and the way they celebrated, the air was a little bit out of their tyres. That’s not something I’m thinking about. I’m not thinking about the trophy or the presentation or anything like that. It’s about going over to Twickenham and putting in a performance that puts you in a position to win.

“Like I said, the way we reacted on Saturday when we knew we had won it, it shows a lot about the group.

“Then everyone is back in this week, excited, recovering well, ready to train and get stuck into the week. It’s a massive week, an exciting week, a challenging week.

“But a week you dream of. You don’t want to leave any stone unturned this week.”

Because you never know if another chance will come around within a decade, or within seven decades.

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