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Ex-Roscommon minor Murray intent on delivering major prize for Ireland U20

‘We know we’re not the biggest team, but we’re a smart team.’

NIALL MURRAY LAUGHS when The42 hazards a wild guess at the position he played in his old favourite sport.

He’s now a towering 6′ 7″ 19-year-old second row, and there was no miraculous recent growth spurt involved, never any great mystery around how he would be best tactically deployed when playing soccer and Gaelic football through his formative years.

Niall Murray Niall Murray at the open session against Ireland's senior side last month. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Though he only took up rugby four years ago, Murray has been a totemic presence in Ireland’s unbeaten run through the opening three rounds of this year’s U20 Six Nations.

He did cross codes with a strong sporting pedigree, however. The Athlone man’s first love was association football and played at centre back with Hodson Bay Celtic before earning the attention of Athlone Town.

His enviable mix of height and athleticism was put to good use on the GAA field too. And after emerging through St Brigid’s, he counts a dramatic 2016 Connacht minor quarter-final as his fondest memory in Gaelic games.

“I was a bit of an impact sub,” he said of his time with Roscommon minors, though he started a series of league games in midfield.

Once the summer brought the Championship, he would be thrust in for crunch time and he helped Roscommon turn a 2-7 to 0-11 deficit with five minutes remaining into a 2-7 to 0-14 away win.

“I’d come on in the last 10-20 minutes and they’d launch high balls in at the full forward line. Up I’d go and and maybe get a flick in behind.”

“We were in a dogfight against Sligo, we were behind the whole match. They got a late goal and we managed to win it by a point. So it was a great celebration,” he says with a hint that he might just be downplaying the elation among the visitors in Markievicz Park that day.

Unfortunately, it was a task too tough to back up that hard-fought win as the next round against Galway was, mystifyingly, scheduled for just four days later. By then, though, Murray was already devoting considerable chunks of his his attention to rugby.

Schooled in the GAA-focused St Aloysius College, it was through Buccaneers that rugby took hold of Murray, but he credits Connacht provincial talent coach Colm Tucker with ensuring he got a handle on the oval ball game.

“He made me the player I am today,” says Murray, “I only really started playing rugby at under 16s, I wouldn’t really have had a great rugby background. Colly taught me all the rules.”

Niall Murray Murray on the run for Connacht against Camarthen in the Celtic Cup this season. Source: Alex Davidson/INPHO

In his first year in his new sport, Connacht U17s took him along on a tour of England that proved to be a trial by fire against the powerful production lines of Saracens and Northampton.

“I got called up to play the U18 inter-pros,” he adds, “which is a massive step for me in my first year playing. We did well, but not the best.

“Then I was playing my own year U18s. We did well then… we had beaten Leinster and Ulster, then unfortunately lost to Munster in Thomond.”

The lock visibly winces at the mere memory of such losses, be it Galway, Saracens or Munster. And that attitude shines through when looking back at his exploits so far in the Six Nations. Noel McNamara’s men are on course for a Grand Slam after gritty wins over Scotland and Italy backed up the sensational opening night thrilling victory over England.

That unbeaten run was severely tested by Italy last time out, as the increasingly-impressive young Azzurri mounted extended onslaughts of pressure, only to find Murray and his pack digging in with expert maul defence laying the groundwork for a dogged bonus point-win.

“We knew it was coming,” he says with pride in the work, “we had prepared well during the week and we just had to put in the shift.”

Thomas Parolo and Niall Murray compete for a lineout The Athlone man rises to beat Thomas Parolo in a line-out in Rieti. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

“If you don’t have the mentality that we’re not going to concede then there’s no point being on the pitch.

“It’s all of us as a pack. We’re all willing to put in the hit, we’re all willing to sack the maul and do our roles to the best of our ability.”

After the win over England, McNamara notably countered an assertion that a surprise result had occurred. This young team have high expectations around what they are capable of.

Murray and his second row partner Charlie Ryan will face stiff competition for their place with Chris Baird returning from injury to play for Dublin University last week, but the locks have formed the engine room of a pack who relish the thought of punching above their weight.

Niall Murray and Charlie Ryan after the game Murray and Charlie Ryan walk off after teh win over Italy. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

They did it against England, and against France they are determined to show their skill and brains to overcome brawn once more.

“That’s our mentality. We know we’re a great team. We know we’re not the biggest team, but we’re a smart team and we can pick teams off by playing smart.”

He adds: “They will come at us with big hits and we’ll try to pick them off.”

A bout of unfortunate injury may just have played a large role in Murray leaning into technical advantages. First taken onto the international stage by the U18 Clubs side, he missed out on Ireland U19 duty because of a shoulder injury. With his school now amalgamated to become the rugby-playing Colaiste Chiarain, he wound up sidelined from their exploits too.

And yet there was a silver lining. He brought Tucker’s influence and that of head coach Seamus Lyons as he began coaching his peers in the school pack rather than becoming a sullen sidelined figure.

“It did really help me,” he says of the premature move into coaching, “I have the be the best at my game to teach other people be the best at their game.”

Niall Murray Source: Alex Davidson/INPHO

Ireland will have to be the best at their game to overcome France in what promises to be another crackling atmosphere in Musgrave Park this Friday night (kick-off 1915, tickets from €15).

Running out in front of 5,764 people in round one was something of shock to the system for many in this crop of players who had never played in front of such a large and fervent crowd before. Yet they rose to the occasion

“The crowd helped us a lot. It was great them getting behind us, even just the chants of ‘Ireland’ really did get us riled up.

We knew we had to put in a good shift to do ourselves proud, and our family’s proud.”

They’ll do so again this week when Les Bleus roll into the Rebel County, but thanks to their exploits so far, Ireland have a four-point lead in the race for the Championship and they will back themselves to work their way to a Grand Slam – whether it be by ‘route one’ or a more thoughtful and technical approach.

“Realistically, we’re in it to win it,” says Murray in serious tones, “we’re sitting nicely on the top of the table. We’ll take it game by game, but we’re definitely aiming to win it.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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