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Lions tour and the All Blacks will bring out the best in Conor Murray

The Limerick man can call on recent experience of beating the Kiwis.
May 4th 2017, 9:15 PM 6,744 1

CONOR MURRAY SHOULD have been giving himself a metaphorical pat on the back when Lions manager John Spencer read out his name among Warren Gatland’s 41-man squad just over two weeks ago but instead he felt worried.

Still unsure about when or if he would recover from a nerve issue in his shoulder and neck area, Murray was concerned that he might miss out on touring New Zealand altogether.

Conor Murray celebrates

Gatland himself would have had a few nervy moments considering Murray’s health too, with the Ireland and Munster scrum-half expected to play a key role for the Lions this summer.

But, happily for all, Murray’s condition has rapidly improved in the last fortnight to the extent that he has taken full contact in training and says he is ready to play for Munster on Saturday against Connacht.

Having come through the worrying moments involved in the healing process, Murray can now enjoy the fact that he will be a Lion for the second time and begin to get excited about taking on the best team in the world.

Especially because I was injured and there was a chance that I might miss it,” says the 28-year-old. “I’m ready to play and I’ll have played a couple of games, so it’s more excitement now for me and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Back in 2013, Murray was seen as the third-choice Lions scrum-half behind Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs and feels there was probably a perception that “I may have snuck in there.”

The Munster man thrived in Australia, however, building a strong working relationship with Rob Howley and earning a spot on the bench by the second Test, even pushing Phillips hard for his starting spot for the decisive third Test.

This time around, Murray is seen as the frontline nine for the Lions, with Wales’ Rhys Webb and England’s Youngs providing the competition.

Conor Murray

The Irishman is taking nothing for granted and stresses the qualities of his two rivals, but he does feel he is better positioned to start for the Lions this year.

“I have no idea where I stand that way, but I can just speak of my experiences over the last four years – I’ve definitely grown and I’ve definitely got better as a player,” says Murray.

“Mentally, I think I’m better equipped to handle these types of situations. I’m definitely in a better place than I was four years ago, but that’s not to say you’re going to get into the team. The competition is definitely red hot.

I really respect the other two lads. Genuinely, I think they’re really good players so hopefully that will bring the best out in myself. It’s going to be whoever Warren and Rob and the lads prefer, or whoever is playing better and that’s the way it should be.”

Murray has very recent experience of beating New Zealand and his sensational display in Chicago last November is likely to stand to him when the Lions coaching staff consider their options.

Youngs was part of the England team that downed the Kiwis in 2012, but Murray and his Irish team-mates can provide a fresher blueprint for taking on the world’s leading side.

“A lot of things need to go your way,” explains Murray. “We put them under really good pressure with our defence and our linespeed that day and they made a few mistakes that they don’t usually make.

“People say that it was just an off-day, but I think that [Lions defence coach] Andy Farrell had us really well prepped that day and we were really hungry.

British and Irish Lions's  Conor Murray Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Roberts celebrate after Jonathan Sexton scores

“You play against the All Blacks and you know how threatening and dangerous they are and you know how they can get a score out of nothing and we just really wanted to defend them. We were really hungry to get up and make the tackles.

“We scored 40 points and that just shows you that you have to go out with an attacking mindset when you do have the ball and not be afraid to play. You have to take a few risks, you’ve got to risk it.

“You have got to play really well, and a few things have to go your way, and that comes from risking a few things, measured risk obviously, but you have got to play.”

Murray is looking forward to working with fellow scrum-halves Webb and Youngs, but the cast of stars around the pitch for the Lions is exciting too.

He names England’s Maro Itoje – “just to see him up close and what he’s like as a person and what he’s like at training” – and Wales’ Liam Williams – “he’s had a massive couple of years and is a really good fella” – as two who stand out in particular ahead of the tour.

The feeling is likely to be reciprocated from everyone else in the Lions squad – an opportunity to work with a man many see as the best scrum-half in the world will be exciting.

Given how Murray thrived in Australia in 2013 and the excellence he has shown for Munster and Ireland since, he’s a good bet to be one of the Lions’ standout players.

Conor Murray celebrates after the game

And given the opposition, we’re likely to see the very best of Murray.

“Definitely when you play the best teams – and with Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, they’re awesome – you just want to play well against them. You want to compete against them and see where you rank or how you perform against them.

“That’s always a thing for me and, yeah, for bigger occasions you probably get a little more from yourself.

“That’s not to say that you shy away and you don’t play your best in club games but on big occasions you look to play that bit better or you’re even more determined to play well.”

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