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'The criticism is something through my career that I have gotten used to'

Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray says he doesn’t agree with some of the criticism that came his way over the past 12 months.

Ireland scum-half Conor Murray.
Ireland scum-half Conor Murray.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

CONOR MURRAY DOESN’T need to be reminded about how quickly the tide can turn in sport.

In the not-so-distant past Murray was being talked up as the world’s premier scrum-half, playing a central role in a hugely successful period for Joe Schmidt’s all-conquering Ireland team.

Yet at the tail end of 2018 he was struck down with a neck injury that left him sidelined for months. It didn’t help that his return to action at the end of the year rolled into a disastrous Six Nations campaign with Ireland, where Murray, along with most of his teammates, performed way below the standards expected of them.

That is why Sunday’s defeat of Scotland meant so much to them. It is why we saw an emotional CJ Stander collect the man of the match award, and why we saw a beaming smile on Johnny Sexton after the game. Not only did they make a winning start to their World Cup, they also looked like the Ireland of 2018. 

Murray was again at the heart of all that was good about their play, gliding across the pitch and firing a string of wonderful passes during the 27-3 win.

The Munster scrum-half, who retains his starting place against Japan on Saturday, admits that while he tries to block out what’s being written about him during the bad times,  he felt some of the criticism he received over the course of the season was off the mark.

“You look at your own performance first and foremost and I felt that during the last year I wasn’t too far off playing at my best. It’s not as if it went drastically wrong,” Murray said.

“As a nine or a 10, you’re going to get the plaudits when things go well and probably a little bit more criticism when things don’t go to plan. It’s something through my career that I have gotten used to. At times I’ve probably struggled with it, but I’m aware of the way things work. For me, I just focus on trying to get better, on trying to play as well as I know I can, week on week.

“I didn’t pay too much attention to that. You have people asking you if you’re OK and how’s your form, but for me, I’d seen that before and I think I know how to deal with it. Last week was a nice way to kick off the World Cup. This weekend is going to be a big occasion and hopefully we can put in a performance to match it.”

conor-murray Conor Murray speaking to the media in Shizuoka today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While Scotland certainly under-performed on the day, the message from Schmidt ahead of the Japan game will be ‘more of the same please.’

Japan, Russia and Samoa will all offer their own challenges, but Ireland are fully aware that the opening game was the one that will set the tempo for the rest of their Pool A schedule. At this point it will be a major shock if they do not top the group.

“It was a good, decent performance from us. There was a long build-up to that game and probably a few more nerves than you’d be used to because of such a long-build up and the hype,” Murray said.

“So for us to go out and perform pretty well in a lot of areas was really satisfying for us as a squad. Personally, to get up and running and get into the game, to have a good few contacts and quite a lot of involvements was nice.”

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Murray, 30, is one of five Munster players in a starting XV that sees four changes from the Scotland game.

Among those coming in is Chris Farrell, Murray’s Munster teammate who put in a hugely impressive 60 minute shift after replacing the injured Bundee Aki in Yokohama.

It marked another significant milestone for Farrell, who only two years ago was still plying his trade with Grenoble in the lower echelons of the French Pro14.

“He’s got soft hands, as you saw last week I think,” Murray said.

“He’s a great player and I’ve enjoyed playing with him since he’s been with Munster. For such a big fella he can move quickly – he has that subtlety with his hands, as you saw at the weekend. He’s such a presence in defence as well. He’s really good at communicating and leaves you in no doubt as to what to do, so it’s a selection headache at centre I presume.

“Chris has been waiting to get his chance. He’s had a few chances and has impressed any time he’s got a run at it, so yeah – an incredible athlete and a great fella to have alongside you.”

As for the challenge of Japan, it is safe to say that Ireland are not taking this game for granted. 

The Brave Blossoms know what it takes to claim a scalp at a World Cup, having famously beaten South Africa in the pool stages four years, while Uruguay’s surprise defeat of Fiji earlier this week will also have served as a timely reminder for the Tier 1 nations ahead of the second round of games.

It promises to be an occasion to remember, and Murray explained out that the raucous atmosphere anticipated in Shizuoka is also being taken into consideration by the squad.

“It’ll definitely go up a level,” Murray said.

“Even though there are going to be a lot of Irish fans there, it’s a home game, obviously, for the Japanese – so they are going to create an awful lot of noise. Both sides need to be ready for the atmosphere and for the occasion to go up a notch again.

“It’s a great place to be and we’ve great respect for the Japanese, especially the lads who came and toured here two years ago. It’s going to be really tough out there. They play at a frantic pace if you let them and it could be a long day if you’re not on top of things.”

Thankfully for Ireland, Sunday’s performance suggests that they will be more than ready. 

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