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Niall Murray hoping to tip the balance for Connacht against Scarlets

The young lock has quickly filled out into a force in the Connacht engine room.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE SECOND ROW has become an area of real solidity in Connacht through recent seasons and there is a promise of more to come as academy product Niall Murray goes from strength to strength.

Still just 21, the Brideswell man is developing into a key part of the western province’s future and was last week rewarded with a new contract as illustration. All told, it has been a rapid rise for Murray as he has a clear memory of his first rugby training session at Buccaneers five years ago.

He and his brothers would watch Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in Six Nations action and take the inspiration out to the back yard. Sport was always calling for Murray, but rugby is the fortunate code to have him hooked since he was 16.

As footballing centre half, he was on track to Athlone Town FC through Hodson Bay Celtic. In Gaelic football he was a high-reaching midfielder for St Brigid’s and Roscommon minors. He can look back at a few roads not taken, but perhaps the biggest diversion offered came from Australia.

“I was in school one day and Tadhg Kennelly rang me and asked me to go to a two-day Combine in Dublin.”

By then he was already rooted in the Connacht system, however, and the requirements of trial camps for Australian Rules sounded dangerously like an effort that might stretch him between two stools. So he remained with his native province to play junior inter-pros.

“I was picked then to go to a pre-season in Florida, but I turned it down,” says Murray. “I wasn’t going to risk it all for maybe not even getting picked after that pre-season or having nothing at the end of the day. So I stayed at home.”

Back then, he was pretty identifiable as a rangy converted centre back turned to rugby. He weighed 98 kilos on his Connacht debut 15 months ago. A lot has happened since, scales have been tipped as Murray used lockdown to his advantage and filled out into his 6’7″ frame. 

“Not that I changed a lot in my diet, but the load was a lot less in workload. I was still doing three running sessions a week, but I was doing more gym than I usually would.

“My body never felt so good as it did in that first lockdown. I had a weighing scales at home, but obviously it was faulty. It was reading 105, then I came back in here and all of a sudden I’m 110, 113.”

Murray starts today’s Pro14 closer against the Scarlets (kick-off 8pm, eir Sport), winning a seventh appearance of the season that matches the tally of his debut campaign.

Gavin Thornbury, who played a literal mentorship role for Murray while he was in the academy, joins the 21-year-old in the engine room of a much-changed pack captained by Paul Boyle with Jack Aungier and Jordan Duggan propping either side of Shane Delahunt.

Dead rubber wasn’t a phrase Connacht wanted thrown around the playing personnel this week, but they start today’s game nestled in second place of Conference B, nine points ahead of their opponents. This brace of fixtures since the loss to Munster have been about sharing the workload around the squad and tightening the focus on some areas before the looming Challenge Cup knockout tie away to Leicester Tigers in 12 days’ time.

The form of centres Tom Daly and Sean O’Brien will be all important as Bundee Aki heads for the disciplinary committee after his red card against England – cruelly, the western province are already without captain Jarrad Butler for Europe.

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Alex Wootton will look to cap his impressive first season since moving up from Munster on the left of John Porch with Ben O’Donnell taking up the other wing. Colm O’Reilly has bounced back from injury to make the bench as Kieran Marmion starts alongside Conor Fitzgerald at half-back.

A win on the road tonight would be a valuable thing to take into preparations for a tough assignment in England on Easter Saturday.

Scarlets: Tom Rogers; Tom Prydie, Tyler Morgan, Steff Hughes (capt), Steff Evans; Dan Jones, Dane Blacker; Steffan Thomas, Marc Jones, Pieter Scholtz, Lewis Rawlins, Sam Lousi, Aaron Shingler, Jac Morgan, Sione Kalamafoni.

Replacements: Ryan Elias, Kemsley Mathias, Javan Sebastian, Tevita Ratuva, Uzair Cassiem, Will Homer, Angus O’Brien, Johnny Williams.

Connacht: John Porch, Ben O’Donnell, Sean O’Brien, Tom Daly, Alex Wootton, Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion; Jordan Duggan, Shane Delahunt, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Gavin Thornbury, Paul Boyle (Capt), Conor Oliver, Abraham Papali’i.

Replacements: Dylan Tierney-Martin, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Oisin Dowling, Sean Masterson, Colm Reilly, Jack Carty, Peter Sullivan.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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