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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 28 February, 2020

Murray and Ireland putting Six Nations disappointment in rear-view mirror

The scrum-half is set for his first outing of the season at Twickenham this weekend.

FOR MANY IN Ireland’s World Cup training squad, the last reference point on the pitch in a green jersey was a deeply disappointing outing in Cardiff.

With the roof open and the rain teeming down, Ireland delivered a performance that left many of their supporters concerned about the World Cup, ensuring that the optimism produced during 2018 was brought back down to earth.

Conor Murray Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s one of the reasons that Saturday’s clash with England feels important for Ireland, a chance for Joe Schmidt’s team to get some momentum rolling with an encouraging performance. It feels like players and supporters alike would benefit from their team displaying signs that the World Cup will bring out the best in them.

Conor Murray is among the players set for their first outings of the new season in Twickenham, having worked hard for the last eight weeks to get himself into prime condition.

After overcoming Italy in Dublin two weekends ago, this weekend will be a real step up for Ireland. It’s time to put the Six Nations – which started on a poor note with a defeat to England in Dublin – firmly in the rear-view mirror. 

“It’s our first outing since then for a good few of us, last weekend [against Italy] was the chance for other lads to right a few wrongs,” said Murray yesterday after training with Ireland at their warm-weather camp in Portugal.

“It’s not a motivating factor in the dressing room, it’s an individual thing and, to be honest with you, it’s gone, it’s over. Looking back on those games, we know how we lost them. 

“We know what went wrong, but a lot went right in that Six Nations and there’s a lot of things we can take from it.

“Looking back on that England game, we just made a bad start and that seemed to be the start of the story-line for our Six Nations outside our group and maybe a little bit inside our group.

“That was the starting block, the standard set and it felt like we were chasing ourselves.

“But realistically, looking back at the game, a couple of little errors that turned out to be big errors just set us up for that game and maybe for the rest of the Six Nations.

“So we didn’t get too bogged down in it, we knew what went wrong and how to fix it so I think that’s long gone but still really valuable lessons.”

Conor Murray Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As intriguing as anything in this weekend’s fixture will be what Ireland do on the pitch, with everyone looking out for hints as to how they will operate at the World Cup.

Schmidt’s men had issues with breaking down suffocating defences at times during the Six Nations, and their phase play is one area that they have been working hard on in training this summer.

“I think at times during the Six Nations dealing with other teams’ linespeed, it was a bit difficult and [we've been] just looking at ways around that and how to get the momentum back once we’ve maybe been hit behind the gainline a couple of times and keep the opposition guessing,” said Murray.

“That’s always been the aim and probably an area we do need to improve on going into this game and further down the line.

“So eight weeks of pre-season is a nice time to work on that and, hopefully, I’d be confident you’ll see an improvement there.”

It will also be fascinating to see how Ireland approach the kicking contest if Murray is back in the number nine shirt, having not kicked off scrum-halves Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion a single time against Italy two weekends ago.

Murray is deservedly regarded as one of the best box-kickers in the world but Ireland had real frustrations in that area in the Six Nations – notably against England – partly explaining why they mixed things up against Italy last time out.

“I think the aerial battle when it comes to the World Cup, it’s going to be massive,” said Murray.

“When a team gets dominance there it’s a massive factor in how the game is going to go. Last year against England, I thought we actually kicked quite well. We did but we’re always searching for a perfect performance so bar one or two I think all of us kicked quite well in that game, it was just maybe the access to the ball we couldn’t get. 

“That might prove to be difficult again this weekend, so we just have to find ways around that, whether it’s playing more phases or kicking from a second set of hands or from the edge or whatever.

Ireland’s Conor Murray Murray is a high-quality box-kicker. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“It’s about keeping the opposition guessing because if we’re denied that access again it kind of deflates you. We thought we’d get up and we’d get in the air and usually, we’re good at getting it back and we didn’t get an awful lot of return the last time and it just was a kind of energy-sapping exercise really.”

All in all, there is much to look forward to on Saturday as many of Ireland’s key men get up and running against a physical England side that already has two games under the belt.

“A Twickenham start,” said Murray. “There’s enough lads with enough experience to know how tough it’s going to be. It’s not a balancing act, it’s more a realisation that it’s not a warm-up game. It’s our first game, but it’s going to be a really tough ask.

“So, mentally preparing for this game is as important as the physical work that we’ve done.

“It’s going to be really tough, the start of the game, the first 20 minutes is going to be massive in terms of getting set and getting into the game and giving ourselves a chance.” 

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Murray Kinsella

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