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'You can’t see how his first game will be the All Blacks but if it is, all the better'

Ronan O’Gara says the most important thing for Conor Murray is to return when he feels right, and not ahead of time.

AS CONOR MURRAY’S rehabilitation work intensifies under the guidance of Joe Schmidt and the IRFU’s medical staff, the scrum-half now appears to be in a race to be fit for Ireland’s clash against the All Blacks.

Murray, originally ruled out of Ireland’s four-game November schedule due to the neck injury which has kept him sidelined for the opening three months of the season, could now return in time for the 17 November showdown at the Aviva Stadium. 

Conor Murray during training Murray has been training at Carton House this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Speaking in Chicago yesterday, Ireland assistant coach Simon Easterby refused to rule the Munster nine out of the eagerly-anticipated meeting with the All Blacks, with Murray training alongside a group of senior players at Carton House this week.

If he is declared fit to play against the world’s number-one ranked side, it would be a sensational return for Murray who only last week said he was targeting Munster’s Pro14 games next month as likely comeback dates.

Should the 29-year-old feature against New Zealand in a fortnight, however, it will come as no surprise to Steve Hansen — who wondered if Schmidt is playing an ‘Irish trick’ — nor Ronan O’Gara, who last week predicted his former team-mate would start.

It seems O’Gara’s ‘gut instinct’ may have been right after all.

“It was just I had a conversation, I was at a dinner with him and I was asking him how he was, and he was saying he’s nearly ready to go,” the former Ireland out-half says.

“It turns out now that he obviously had something in him that he’s ready to go. I don’t know where he is at the minute. You can’t see how his first game will be the All Blacks but if it is, it’s all the better for Ireland.

“If there is [a chance], I’d say he’ll need to be training from Monday. It’s on the 17 November, so he’ll probably need a two-week build-up. So a few internal training sessions and he’d build up to contact there, and if he gets through that then.”

Despite Murray’s absence from the Ireland squad presenting one of Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath or John Cooney with a huge opportunity to stake their claim, there is now uncertainty over who will wear the number nine jersey against the All Blacks.

O’Gara, speaking in Dublin today, added: “The most important thing is that Conor can’t afford to have a setback when he does come back. That happens in rugby. He could get a completely different injury but he doesn’t need to be re-visiting this injury and taking more time out. Conor is a smart enough guy to realise when he’s back, he’s very important to the team and he needs to be firing.

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“I think when he’s right, he’s right. I think he knows that. I wouldn’t say even the medical team or the coaches know that. I think he’ll just go ‘lads, I feel now I’m at my best, let me off’. That will be a decision between the medics and themselves.”

Before then, Ireland open their November schedule against Italy in Chicago on Saturday evening with the likes of McGrath and Cooney set for game time ahead of the visit of Argentina and New Zealand to Dublin for the headline fixtures on 10 and 17 November.

Ronan O’Gara Guinness today launched the Guinness Series by announcing their campaign #AnswerIrelandsCall in the presence of Irish Rugby legend Ronan O’Gara. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Schmidt, who will only link up with the squad tomorrow after spending the first part of the week with his senior players in Carton, will get the chance to cast his eye over a number of lower-capped players, including Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne.

With Johnny Sexton among those excused from duty this week, Carbery is in line for just his second international start at out-half with Leinster’s Byrne also pushing for his first Ireland cap after his involvement on the summer tour of Australia.

Carbery has hit the ground running at Munster this season and is expected to start at Soldier Field against Conor O’Shea’s Italy, with O’Gara of the opinion that the two 10s are now at different stages of their development.

“It seems Joey is a pretty established as a number 10 already because he’s had a great few months with Munster and Ross Byrne is obviously looking to win his first cap,” O’Gara added.

“So I think Joey probably has the advantage in the fact that he has more experience. For big games he’s such a big player. He can play in any position in the backline after 50 minutes if you ask me. He can play 10, 12, 13, 15. He’s a good addition there.

“For Ross it’s a case of, I suppose it’s a great occasion for anyone trying to play for their country. He was unlucky in Australia not to get on. He’s hoping he can get his break this weekend. If he gets his break, he needs to be able to show his team-mates that he’s capable of taking it.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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