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Analysis: How has Conor Murray been playing in the Six Nations?

The 29-year-old is not quite at his best but the concern around him has been exaggerated.

Updated Feb 26th 2019, 8:57 PM

YOU’RE NEVER AS good as they say you are and you’re never as bad as they say you are.

It’s a maxim that the late Anthony Foley always tried to remember and it’s one that Ireland, you’d expect, have been living by in recent seasons under Joe Schmidt.

It’s also a mantra that Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton may be reminding themselves of at present, with their form not yet hitting the memorable heights of 2018 – although those memories are, of course, sugarcoated and we’re forgetting the errors they made along with the brilliance of their play at other times.

Murray Murray was frustrated by a second-half handling error against Italy.

Murray and Sexton were deservedly lauded for their contributions to the Grand Slam and a series win in Australia last year, while they’re now facing criticism with Ireland underperforming in this year’s Six Nations. 

Murray returned from a long-term neck/shoulder when he made a replacement appearance for Munster against Zebre on 25 November.

Between then and the start of the Six Nations, the Limerick man played 493 minutes of rugby for his province.

In contrast, the injury-free Murray had played 832 minutes of rugby for Munster last season before the start of the 2018 Six Nations.

Clearly, Murray came into this year’s Six Nations with less rugby behind him and he remains on the pathway back to his best form after missing almost three months at the start of the season.

The wastage on his left arm is clearly visible but the mechanics of his play and willingness to enter contact don’t appear to have been affected by this.

The debate around Murray’s form has been ever-present since the England game and magnified in the wake of last weekend’s win in Italy, when the scrum-half made two notable errors.

There were plenty of strong aspects to his performances but those two errors have possibly clouded the reality of what Murray has brought for Ireland over the course of this Six Nations.

Passing

The key duty for any scrum-half is passing and Murray is generally one of the best passers in the game, offering consistent accuracy.

There have been examples of poor passes from the Ireland scrum-half in this championship but, largely, he has performed well in this area, improving with each game.

We have reviewed each and every one of his passes in the three games so far in order to get a better understanding of his overall competence here.

Against England, we counted four of Murray’s 100 passes as ‘poor,’ whereby the ball went to ground or noticeably made the target player check to receive it, as in the case below.

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Murray is firing off a pass after receiving the ball from the lineout, with out-half Sexton his target.

It’s a demanding pass of around 15 metres but Murray would have been disappointed with this effort.

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As we can see above, Sexton has to stoop towards the ground to receive the ball.

There were a further four passes from Murray in this game that we marked as ‘inaccurate,’ a category above ‘poor.’

In these cases, Murray’s pass was not ideal for the receiver and though it didn’t make them check, it did add an extra demand to their job.

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Murray is passing to Josh van der Flier in the instance above.

As we can see below, van der Flier has to reach up towards his head to gather the ball.

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The pass doesn’t cause van der Flier to completely check his stride but it does deprive him of split-seconds that may have resulted in a better ball carry.

Otherwise, Murray’s passing against the English consisted of ‘accurate’ passes, whereby Murray delivered the ball at the ideal height and power, as well as out in front of or directly to the target as required.

Against Scotland, we counted three ‘poor’ passes and a further four ‘inaccurate’ efforts, from his total of 114, another solid return.

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The pass above, in the 48th minute, went to ground but it’s an interesting scenario that is about more than the pass.

In this instance, there was apparent confusion around Murray as to who the target was. Quinn Roux and Sean O’Brien are to the left of the ruck, while Joey Carbery and Bundee Aki are out the back door. 

With no one quite putting their hand up to receive the ball, Murray’s pass goes to ground in front of Aki and though Keith Earls recovers it, Ireland are turned over at the subsequent breakdown.

This incident points to the overall lack of cohesion Ireland have had in this championship. Murray needs to be more decisive in controlling the situation, of course, but the lack of certainty around him feeds into his pass going to ground.

Against Italy, Murray improved again with three ‘poor’ passes and one ‘inaccurate’ release, amidst even sharper delivery on his accurate efforts and some good decision-making around the ruck.

On the phase just before Roux’s opening try, Murray delivered a peach of a pass for Chris Farrell to make crucial metres.

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Murray takes advantage of the good build-up play, especially Tadhg Furlong’s offload to Roux on the previous phase, to pick and run just off the fringe of the breakdown.

Murray’s decision is excellent, as he opts to skip the ball past Sean Cronin – the obvious target – and instead pick out Farrell running a superb line that Ireland have built into their game over the past year or so.

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Italy tighthead Simone Ferrari [red above] can’t resist biting in on Cronin, leaving Farrell bursting into space on his outside. 

Farrell does get stopped short, but on the next phase Murray makes a short pass to Roux and the second row batters over – one of the Ireland scrum-half’s two try assists in this game.

All in all, Murray’s passing against Italy shows that he still has room for improvement, but the 29-year-old is moving in the right direction in this regard.

Around the fringes

Murray possesses a strong running game, helping him towards 14 tries in his 70 Tests so far.

Ireland have tended to use his height and power around the rucks and even on set-piece plays, as we saw early on against England.

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From the initial lineout, Murray hits Sexton [white above] and the out-half tips-on a pass for Aki to carry hard [yellow] and set the platform.

On second phase, Ireland bounce back against the grain, with Murray passing to Furlong [white below] and then looping around the tighthead [yellow] and accepting the return pass.

2

Murray then sells a dummy, which sees England’s Kyle Sinckler drifting off him and onto the screaming Cian Healy.

The space briefly opens up for Murray but George Kruis does a fine job of getting beyond Furlong after the tighthead’s pass and scragging Murray in a tackle. It’s worth noting that Owen Farrell was in position sweeping behind the frontline but an early break here would have been huge for Murray’s confidence.

As it was, Murray only had a single other genuine ball-carry in this game, trying to force his way over from close-range just before Healy scored in the first half.

The lack of sniping and variation from Murray was a concern, though it improved against Scotland, when the scrum-half had two snipes at the fringes of rucks among a total of nine carries – one set-piece play and some backfield cover making up some of the rest.

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Ireland had issues with the variety of their phase play in the Scotland 22 – this improved collectively against Italy – and Murray’s lack of carrying was part of that problem but on this occasion, he scoops the ball and runs an arc to the left of the ruck.

He has forwards to his left in position to carry but instead backs his own power.

7

Murray makes a valuable gain for Ireland and, while they don’t have the scrum-half on his feet for the next phase, the ball-carrying pressure is briefly lifted from his forwards in this lengthy passage of attack.

We saw the value of Murray’s running arc and pass against Italy earlier, but his best carry of the championship so far came in the second half in Rome.

After an excellent carry from Dave Kilcoyne, Murray identifies that opposite number Tito Tebaldi [white below] is isolated at the fringe of the ruck.

8

Furlong, on Murray’s right, can see the same picture as his scrum-half picks and darts.

Snipe

Click here if you cannot view the clip above

Murray surges forward, fends Tebaldi, then gets the ball back into two hands and offloads to Furlong on his right. 

Italy knock the ball loose in their tackle on Furlong but Andrea Lovotti picks the ball up in an offside position and Ireland kick the penalty down the left-hand touchline, eventually resulting in Keith Earls’ try – the second assist Murray had in this game. 

There is certainly far more to come from Murray’s abilities around the fringes of rucks, but he appears to be moving in the right direction. 

It’s worth briefly noting that Murray has been running clever lines off the ball with little reward so far in this championship, as below against Scotland.

45

Ireland have a three-on-two out on the right edge of their attack here but, unfortunately for Murray, Aki opts to carry instead of passing and Murray’s optimistic support line – pre-empting the break in order to be in a good support position – is not rewarded.

Murray did get a five-point reward for his follow-up play against Scotland, of course, but he will continue to work hard off the ball in the hope that when Ireland’s attack clicks into top gear, he will be on the shoulder in support of the linebreaks. 

Errors

The main concern around Murray in recent days seems to have stemmed from the errors he made against Italy.

In the fourth minute, Murray dropped the ball forward but that was largely down to a poor pass from the lineout by Sean O’Brien.

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Ireland have used Murray out beyond the 15-metre line as part of their ‘backline’ attack frequently in this championship – Munster have been doing the same this season – and instead using one of the forwards to pass off the lineout.

O’Brien’s pass is too far in front of Murray here and also dips at the finish, resulting in Murray failing to gather it in and letting Italy off the hook in a situation where Ireland are normally clinical from.

The most notable error in Murray’s game was being stripped of the ball by Tebaldi in the 38th minute, leading to Luca Morisi’s try.

1

Ireland’s maul makes good progress but with Federico Ruzza fighting his way through the middle to threaten the ball, Murray opts to arc off [yellow above] and make a short pass to Stockdale to carry.

Though Stockdale gets over the gainline in a double tackle, he is suddenly isolated as Tebaldi [red below] arrives across to threaten over the ball.

2

Farrell [yellow above] is the arriving support player but we can see that Morisi [12] is blocking his access in at Tebaldi.

At this point, Murray should really be considering hitting the breakdown himself to remove the threat of Tebaldi but he leaves Farrell to do that job, keen to play the ball away and take advantage of Italy’s disorganised defence.

Farrell does engage Tebaldi – coming from the side although arguably being forced to do so by Morisi’s positioning – with Tebaldi clearly flopping off his feet at first and hoping Farrell will drive him back up as he latches onto the ball.

5

As we can see below, Tebaldi is driven back up onto his feet but Farrell doesn’t finish the clearout and slips beyond the Italy scrum-half [yellow below].

3

Sexton, recognising the threat, has arrived up towards the ruck. Sexton first uses his hand to signal to referee Glen Jackson his belief that Tebaldi is off his feet, then uses the same right hand to point Murray at Tebaldi – seemingly telling him to hit the clearout.

In the next second, as Murray is gathering the ball, Sexton points to the left to indicate to Murray to pass to the arriving Cronin on that side of the ruck.

Murray, though, looks to his right as he lifts the ball and Tebaldi, having fought to stay on his feet, comes forward and gets a hand in on the ball.

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Murray is clearly taken by surprise and feels Tebaldi is coming from an illegal position as the Italian snaffles the ball.

Perhaps the most disappointing element from Murray’s point of view is his reaction.

Having lost the ball and with Jackson shouting, “straight through [the middle of the breakdown]” Murray disengages and actually turns his back on Tebaldi.

8

Murray is in a better position than anyone to nip the counter-attacking danger in the bud but instead throws his arm up in appeal as Tebaldi slips through the grasp of Sexton, beats O’Brien’s covering tackle attempt and surges out of the Italy 22.

“He felt that the player was offside, but you can feel whatever you like – it is the game and you’ve got to get back into the game and you can’t let somebody have the ball when it’s in your hands,” said Schmidt post-game.

Later, Murray was pick-pocketed for a second time, much to his frustration.

Again, the play comes off the back of an Irish maul as Murray looks to shift the ball infield.

11

Just as Murray looks to pull the trigger on his pass, Italy’s David Sisi stretches out and grabs the scrum-half’s right arm… 

10

… forcing the ball loose and forward for a Murray knock-on.

Sisi is entitled to reach out from the maul, although his initial involvement in this maul is questionable as he appears to enter from the side. However, Jackson is happy with that aspect of the game and Sisi cleverly reaches out to spoil.

Again, Ireland appeal, with Murray questioning the legality of Sisi’s actions but he is likely to reflect that he needs to be slightly more aware and sharper in getting the ball away in similar situations in the future.

Kicking

Only England’s Ben Youngs [49] has made more kicks in play than Murray’s 35 in this year’s Six Nations, so there has been plenty of evidence to study in this regard.

Similarly to the rest of his game, Murray has been improving in this department as the championship has progressed.

His kicking performance against England was a little mixed, with some poor examples and some examples of kicking excellence.

Below, we get an example of the former.

1

Murray has identified that England wing Jonny May [yellow] is up in the frontline, leaving fullback Elliot Daly with lots of backfield space to cover.

Murray scoops the ball from the ruck and looks to kick on the diagonal to his right…

2

… but makes a poor connection with the ball, slicing up and over it rather than through it, and his kick has a low trajectory without much power.

That gives May time to track back and gather the ball…

3

… as Daly [red] covers across. A better kick from Murray and England might have been in a dangerous situation deep in that right corner. Good decision, but the execution comes up short. 

Murray had three strong touch-finding clearances from the Ireland 22 in this game, although he missed touch in one tricky situation near their goal-line, while he did manage to give his chasing players a chance in a number of contestable kicks.

A first-half injury to Earls meant he was slightly hesitant to get up in the air for two of those, although Garry Ringrose retrieved one superbly.

4

Murray hangs the box kick in the air for over four seconds and around 25 metres upfield, ideal criteria to allow competition, with Ringrose [yellow above] leading the chase.

Crucially, Ringrose gets clear access in towards the landing point of the kick, not being blocked off by England’s ‘escort’.

5

It means Ringrose can actually get into the air to regain the ball, as Daly fails to do so for England – a big momentum-lifting moment for Ireland to reward Murray’s fine kick.

Ireland had no similar success against Scotland, however, as Schmidt’s side generally opted to kick long on a windy day at Murrayfield.

These tactics meant Murray only sent up three kicks that were of the contestable variety, with Scotland’s escorting proving difficult to break down.

1

We get an example early in the game here, as Murray hangs up a box kick for Earls [yellow] to chase.

The retreating Greig Laidlaw cleverly times and angles his run to get just in front of Earls [red below] as Sean Maitland goes to collect Murray’s kick.

2

Earls is blocked from potentially going up into a contest for the ball.

It’s worth noting here that Ireland escort opposition kick chasers, as does every team in the world, although it’s been interesting to note referees’ willingness to accept even changes of retreating line in this championship.

It has also been noticeable that chasing players pushing retreating defenders has been accepted – as with Earls and Edoardo Padovani last weekend or Owen Farrell shoving Aki on kick chase against Ireland.

Perhaps Ireland need to be more streetwise and aggressive in getting through to compete for Murray’s box kicks when they’re being escorted.

Murray only kicked six times against Italy and Stockdale regained one of his contestables, while Andrew Conway came close to doing the same earlier in the game.

Murray’s final kick of the day brought a little more frustration as Stockdale found his running line impeded and couldn’t get into the contest under another excellent kick.

While the volume was low against Italy, this improved kicking performance from Murray will be encouraging for Schmidt.

Defending

While it might be understandable for someone having returned relatively recently from a shoulder/neck issue to avoid contact as much as possible, Murray has been as willing a defender as ever for Ireland.

Against England, he made 13 tackles and missed one – slipping off the powerful Manu Tuilagi as the centre switched back underneath him on a scrum attack.

Murray has always been a strong defender and he made some excellent tackles on big English carriers in the opening game of the championship.

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As we can see above, Murray generally operates as part of Ireland’s frontline defence, with defence coach Andy Farrell keen to have bodies up in the frontline generating linespeed.

Murray makes a good low tackle on Mark Wilson in this instance, killing his possibility of driving through the tackle…

4

… allowing assist tackler Peter O’Mahony to compete and slow down the English possession.

Earlier in the game, Murray did get slightly left behind in the Irish defensive line for the opening English try, as we discussed at the time.

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Murray is left behind Ringrose on his inside and Earls on his outside here, and this may have fed into Earls’ decision to shoot up – which Farrell brilliantly took advantage of.

That said, it’s a poor read from Earls on the edge that allows Ireland to get skirted, and Murray showed sharpness in defence for much of the rest of the game.

Against Scotland, Murray was not in the defensive frontline as often for Ireland, as they responded to their backfield issues against England by often dropping the scrum-half into the backfield, where he had one excellent bit of cover play after a Scottish kick.

Murray did make five tackles in the game and again looked comfortable defensively.

With Ireland dominating possession against Italy, Murray only made three tackles although he did register two ‘missed tackles’ on the official stats sheet.

One of those came as he looked for linespeed and was well covered by Farrell on his outside, not quite a miss in contact, while the other was a poor effort on kick chase on Jayden Hayward, which Farrell also covered.

A rare blip from a man who remains an important defender for Ireland and will likely add more impact in this area as his confidence grows.

Contributing

It’s worth highlighting that Murray also assumed the place-kicking duties for Ireland against Scotland – for one kick only – and Italy, kicking all three of his shots at goal for a 100% return.

Shot

The conversion of his own try against Italy was the best of the lot, around 13 metres in from the left touchline. 

Place-kicking is a useful tool for Murray to possess and his hard work on the training ground in this department could prove important again in the future.

While there is natural concern as the scrum-half remains short of his best, there has also certainly been a degree of exaggeration around his current form, as tends to be the case in the world of professional sport.

Murray himself will be focusing on making incremental improvements as he works back towards the world-class performances he knows he is more than capable of.

Originally published at 18.46

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Murray Kinsella

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