Bryan Keane/INPHO Munster scrum-half Conor Murray.
trophy hunting
Murray eyes up URC title charge after watching 'special' weekend for former teammate O'Gara
Conor Murray is determined to end Munster’s long wait for a trophy as the province prepare for a URC quarter-final against Ulster.

CONOR MURRAY IS in his 13th season as a Munster player, so is well used to the conversation that creeps up at this time of year.

It’s now 11 years since Munster last claimed silverware, with a young Murray part of the 2011 Magners League winning squad. Trophies have remained the target at the start on each campaign since, but year on year Munster have come up short.

Following penalty-shootout defeat to Toulouse last month, the United Rugby Championship now stands as their sole opportunity to end the drought this season, the province heading to Belfast tomorrow for a quarter-final clash with Ulster.

“It’d be huge to win a trophy with Munster. The Magners League is nearly gone out of my mind, it’s that long ago,” Murray says.

“We’re enjoying the way we play, we’re in a really good spot at the moment. You’re probably sick of us saying at this stage of the season that we want to win a trophy and put an end to it, so that’s the long-term goal.

“But our focus and excitement is going up to Ulster this weekend, we’re confident with the group of players we have to take this match on it’s own that we can go up there and give a really good account of ourselves. If we do that, we’ll be there or thereabouts.”

conor-murray Dan Sheridan / INPHO Murray is in his 13th season with Munster. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

If they are to go all the way, Munster will certainly have to work for it. Not many teams leave Belfast with a win – Munster were the only team to beat Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium during the URC regular season – and victory tomorrow would set them up for a semi-final date away to either the Stormers or Edinburgh in the semi-finals the following weekend.

Munster are also looking to recover from a deflating defeat to a heavily-rotated Leinster side last time out.

It’s a tough route to the final, the way the Leinster game went was a disappointing one, but the route we have we’ll figure it out along the way if we get past Ulster. It would mean an awful lot, another heartbreak in Europe and the usual feeling this time of year. We’ve got to keep dusting yourself off and give yourself the best chance.

“With this group, with the youth and the buzz they create. Our coaching group, the maturity of the squad – we go at this competition.

“We’ve put in an awful lot of work the last couple of years, I wouldn’t say we deserve anything but we’re putting ourselves in a pretty good position.”

Munster also know they are in for a different experience to their last visit to Belfast, a 24-17 which came on the back of Ulster’s own European exit at the hands of Toulouse.

There was probably a little bit of an off atmosphere when we went up there the last time, that’s probably due to the hype from their European game the week before and turning up again the week after is always going to be a challenge.

“But they’ve had that time to settle down after their European disappointment, this is knockout rugby and you’ve got a chance to still win a trophy at the end of the year.

“Both teams’ focus will fully be on the URC this Friday night, they’ll be looking to beat us obviously and you’d imagine they’ll be a little bit sharper than the last day and it required us to be pretty good to get the result.

“There’ll be something a little bit more about them this weekend, they’ll be focused and we’re under no illusions it’ll be a tough place to go.”

Murray added that it was “pretty special” to see former teammate Ronan O’Gara lead La Rochelle to Champions Cup success last weekend.

“It was unbelievably impressive, even before this ROG has done an incredible job on his coaching pathway whether in France, New Zealand and back again,” Murray continues.

conor-murray-and-ronan-ogara Cathal Noonan / INPHO Murray and O'Gara in 2012. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“He seems to have created an unbelievable culture down there, it was class seeing them – whether Leinster won or lost wasn’t important to us, we went out in the quarter-final – but in terms of the Munster contingent in La Rochelle it was unbelievably impressive, to see the culture he’s created down there. To see him lift a European trophy again was pretty special.

I’m happy for the way his coaching career has gone, he’s taken it unbelievably seriously and has done it the hard way, he’s learnt his trade, done his time and with Donners (Donnacha Ryan) coming in… I’m sure it was an unbelievable challenge coming up against Leinster in a final like that, in a spectacle in Marseille and to come through you’re delighted for the two lads, they deserve it.”

After the Champions Cup final, O’Gara mentioned that his La Rochelle players may have found him “a bit strict and difficult at the start” of his tenure. 

“Obviously ROG demanded high standards when you were playing with him; but you’ve seen it in French rugby of late; they’re way more structured and still have that flair,” Murray adds.

“The structure of their game is a lot tighter and that allows them to really be involved at the latter end of competitions, semi-finals and finals.

“I know Donners is like that as well as a player and a coach, he was unbelievably diligent and his homework; he’d be in the training centre until 5 or 6 at night, reviewing opposition lineouts and things like that.

“It’s no surprise to see the effect the two lads have had on a very talented La Rochelle side.

“He’s turned them into winners, in terms of big games – semi-finals and finals – it does turn a little bit into Test rugby. The structure of the game does become an awful lot tighter, the errors are capitalised on an awful lot more. The risks are an awful lot higher.

“They’ve done an incredible job.”

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