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Dublin: 9°C Monday 8 March 2021

Growth of scrum-half depth in Murray's absence a major positive for Ireland

Kieran Marmion got two big starts this month, while Luke McGrath and John Cooney have had exposure too.

THE PROSPECT OF Ireland facing the All Blacks without Conor Murray led to an understandable degree of pessimism.

The Munster scrum-half is, after all, one of the best players in world rugby.

But it transpired that Joe Schmidt’s team could get the job done without their first-choice halfback, as Kieran Marmion was handed the number nine shirt for the second weekend in a row and Luke McGrath added impact off the bench.

Kieran Marmion celebrates after the game Kieran Marmion delivered a sharp performance against the All Blacks. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

There are so many positives to pick through from last weekend’s 16-9 win in Dublin but the fact that Ireland beat the All Blacks for a second time without Murray was chief among them.

All going well with his recovery, which is set to see him take to the pitch for Munster on Sunday against Zebre, Murray will be back in Ireland’s number nine shirt for next year’s Six Nations.

This November, however, has seen Ireland’s depth at scrum-half develop.

“I think especially coming from the media side of it, Conor Murray is certainly a world-class player,” said Ireland assistant coach Richie Murphy yesterday. “What would we do without Conor Murray?

“The guys, who’ve come in have filled his shoes and have done really well.

“It has been a great opportunity for us not to have Conor because you’ve got to see a lot more of Kieran Marmion, a lot more of Luke McGrath.

“And John Cooney has also been in camp for the last couple of weeks. We might get an opportunity to see him this week [against the US] as well.

“In that way, it has been a real positive for the group, just not a positive for Conor Murray because he missed out.

Ireland’s Luke McGrath Luke McGrath has made three appearances this month. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He should be coming back nice and fresh and I think he’s going to be involved this weekend. We look forward to welcoming him back into the squad come the Six Nations.”

Marmion is set for a three-month spell on the sidelines due to ankle surgery, having played through the injury in recent weeks for Ireland, although Murphy insisted that it was never going to cause the scrum-half trouble during games.

The fact that Marmion earned starts against Argentina and the All Blacks alongside Johnny Sexton was important for his development.

“Starting those big games, you can see what he brings to the team,” said Murphy “His work ethic, his defence, his speed to get around the park is really good. 

“He can’t play the game like Conor Murray, we don’t want him to. He needs to be himself and I think he has been over the last few weeks.

“Kieran, his box-kicking is a different style to someone like Conor Murray, who can put the ball as high as he wants. Kieran can’t do that.

“The tendency is to kick the ball shorter than Conor. The ball doesn’t need to be in the air quite as long.    

“Some of our running lines are being impeded coming through to get into the contest [against the All Blacks]. I would say it is definitely an area of his game that he has to keep on working on and improve.”

John Cooney John Cooney is set to feature this weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With McGrath making two impactful replacement appearances in the past fortnight, as well as starting against Italy, and with Cooney now set for further involvement versus the US after a replacement appearance against Italy, Ireland’s scrum-half depth chart does look far healthier.

Murphy explained that the Ireland coaching staff are still looking to create more depth in all positions.

“I think the squad is building all the time,” said Murphy. “In an ideal world, we would be three-deep in every position.

“When you look at the sevens, Seanie [O'Brien] got injured, Dan [Leavy] missed out. Josh [van der Flier] comes in and is one of the best players on the pitch on the night. 

“What we’d like to have is a situation where that it is the same. If you look at nine, you’ve got Conor, you’ve got Marmo and you’ve got John Cooney coming up behind and Luke in there as well.  

“We’re starting to look quite strong in those areas. Ross [Byrne] has been mentioned already as being seen as that third-choice 10 and he could definitely do a job for us.  

“Look, we’re in a strong position. We’ll always be trying to look for more and build that more because strength in the past has let us down a little bit.  We’re just conscious of it and try to keep building.”

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Murray Kinsella

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