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'Conor is a competitor, he has an edge about him'

Even those who know Conor Murray well were surprised by Warren Gatland’s decision to make the scrum-half Lions captain.

THE EMAIL LANDED shortly before 10pm, another huge bit of Lions news on a day that had quickly spiralled into something of a mini-crisis for Warren Gatland.

His Lions squad had kicked-off their summer tour with a comfortable 18-point win over Japan in Edinburgh, but the losses of Justin Tipuric and tour captain Alun Wyn Jones to injury added some unexpected chaos just 24 hours before the group were due to depart for South Africa. Gatland didn’t take long to settle on a replacement skipper, the news confirmed just a couple of hours after the final whistle sounded on a costly encounter in Murrayfield.

Conor Murray, Lions captain. It took even those who know him well by surprise.

“It was one of those ones that catches you as a little bit leftfield, but some of the rationale behind it makes a lot of sense,” says Denis Hurley, a veteran of 166 Munster caps who was well established in the province’s squad by the time a young Conor Murray made his first significant strides with the first team.

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“A coach like Gatland doesn’t make decisions ad-hoc, you know? It was probably a quicker decision in his mind than people might think, and it shows how much faith Gatland has in him.”

Captain Conor Murray may be a new concept – captaining Munster on only one occasion back in 2014 – but the scrum-half has been a quiet leader in squads for the best part of a decade.

“I’ve known him my whole life,” says former Munster winger Ronan O’Mahony.

conor-murray-and-warren-gatland Conor Murray and Warren Gatland during a Lions training session. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Myself and Murr would have been good friends growing up, our mothers are actually best friends so we would have spent a lot of our childhood around each other during the summers.

“I suppose everyone was a little surprised (he was named captain), but if you look at his credentials he’s obviously a strong candidate for it and Warren Gatland has seen that as well.

“You don’t necessarily need to be a captain for years to show good leadership.”

Both Hurley and O’Mahony spent large parts of their careers playing in Munster backlines marshalled by Murray. When asked about their memories of sharing a pitch and dressing room with the scrum-half, one central characteristic immediately springs to mind for both – a confidence forged by hours of hard work spent perfecting his craft.

“He always had a presence in the team as a leader and a go-to player,” O’Mahony explains. “He brought a sense of calm and assurance to the position. He’s a player you look at and feel a sense of relief that he’s on your team because of the qualities he brings.

ronan-omahony-and-conor-murray Ronan O'Mahony and Conor Murray in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That calmness, that presence, that knowledge he has around the game, the little intricacies he has around his play. He’s really detailed, he know his way around his pitch, knows how to get out of dark alleys.”

“His basics and his skillset are so strong, he’s just one of those players who doesn’t really need to think too much about how he executes,” Hurley says.

“I know at times people look at him and go ‘Why are we kicking again?’ But sometimes that is the coaches’ game-plan and he’s trying to execute that to the best of his ability. That’s what happens generally when you have a professional coaching set-up, there is that element of: this is how we want to play the game.

“But what he’s able to contribute is just that consistency (of performance). His basics are so damn strong that people around him don’t query it, they’re almost a given.

“When you play with Conor, you realise that the guy is just (on another level)… His passing is pin-point, the distance he can put on it, as well as his general kick-game which is actually really strong too.

“The guy is just a class act in terms of his skillset and what he’s able to contribute.”

Off the pitch, Murray has always been a popular, approachable member of any squad he’s been involved with, something which Gatland will have noted when sizing him us as captain material.

“As cool as a breeze. Nothing really fazes him,” O’Mahony says.

He’s a happy-go-lucky character, as nice as you could meet. He loves his bit of golf, a good family man. There’s not a whole lot to him. He takes fame in his stride really. Doesn’t flaunt it around the place and just gets on with his business. He’s just a really good lad.”

“Guys do gravitate towards Conor,” Hurley adds.

“Generally, he’s a very easy-going guy. He’s fun-loving, but at the same time, as soon as he switches on he is a competitive individual. He wants to win and he wants to get the best out of himself, but also those around him.”

Leadership can take many forms. While Murray is not cut from the same cloth as the great Munster captains such as Anthony Foley, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony, he has always commanded respect in the dressing room.

“He doesn’t talk a huge amount (in the dressing room), but when he does it’s very detailed, very precise and specific and people really listen to him,” O’Mahony continues.

“That’s a leadership quality in itself. People who talk a lot, their voice can get drowned out and their opinions can get diluted, but when Murray says something or addresses the squad, everyone listens because he doesn’t pipe up if it’s going to be wishy-washy or not that beneficial to the team.

When he does talk, it has meaning and there’s tactics behind it. He talks to make the team better and to make sure things go right. He doesn’t speak very often, but when he does he holds real power amongst the team.”

On the field, a different side of Murray comes to the fore, one that isn’t afraid to make his voice heard.

“Everyone has a different style,” Hurley says. “Conor just gives clarity. As a number nine he has a hell of a lot to deal with because he gets the most touches of the ball of any player during a match. The key thing for him is that he is getting delivered the type of possession that he wants from his forwards, and any carriers generally on the field.

“So in a dressing room before a game he’s just giving a couple of simple directions to the squad, saying ‘If you’re carrying, the simple things done really well is the only way I can distribute properly and have clean ball to play with,’ and that that affects the rest of the game and the flow of it, and people listen because he does bark on the field to be fair to him. He does get into forwards and he does get into individuals if he feels there’s elements they could be doing better and is affecting general play.

denis-hurley-supported-by-conor-murray Denis Hurley makes a break with Conor Murray in support. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He wants the game to flow and the only way he can flow is if the basic things are done very well in front of him, so the ball carries, the clean outs, the ball placements, and then his runners. He just wants clarity. If there’s three guys running lines off him, he wants an early clear call of which one actually wants the ball so it makes his decision making a hell of a lot quicker and easier. 

“I think from the outside people might have the perception that he is kind of a quieter character, but trust me, he’s very clear in what he wants and he’s not afraid to let guys know that because Conor is a competitor, he has an edge about him, but you only really properly see it in the dressing room and those 80 minutes of a game. 

“He wants to get the best out of himself, but to get that he needs guys around him to be delivering as well.”

That base level of self-confidence and belief has been in Murray from an early age.

“I would have definitely seen it post our U20s World Cup (2009),” says O’Mahony. “Murr wasn’t even our starting nine going down to Japan. Matt Healy, the Connacht winger, was our first-choice nine going down to Japan, but Murr was tipping away nicely in the background, just refining his skillset.

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“Within a year or two he was starting to make strides in Munster and had really honed in on perfecting his skillset – his box-kicking and his passing, which are the cornerstones of his position.”

Murray broke into the Munster team in 2011 and quickly made his presence felt as a key leader around the squad.

“He has his boyband haircut, the One Direction haircut when he first hit the scene,” says Hurley.

conor-murray Murray playing for Munster in 2011. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“You constantly had guys come into the squad (and need time to adapt), but his skills were so strong from an early age. It was almost like asking him to do something was no problem because he knew he could execute it, whereas for a lot of guys, even me when I first hit the scene, there would have been elements maybe of my passing or kicking game where I would have felt if someone was asking me to do it, it would have been a bit of pressure. With Conor, it seemed like whatever he was asked to do, it was just a natural movement.

“When you are talking about being able to put kicks on a sixpence, he was able to deliver. For a young player he was just head and shoulders above other younger players because of that skill base he had. So from a young age then he was always involved in the decision making and the leadership groups in Munster.”

Murray’s career followed a steady upward curve until his neck injury setback in 2018, which saw him out of service for three months and out of form for even longer. In the space of a few short months, a player who had been celebrated as the best scrum-half in the world was reading his name in articles calling for a changing of the guard.

“I’d say it definitely shook him a bit,” Hurley says. “But again, there is that confidence element, you do have to try and work through it.”

“It was difficult,” O’Mahony remembers, “but if you speak to anyone who would have been close to him or would have been training around him (at that time), you still would never see Murray throw a bad pass.

“His core skill-set was so good that within a week he was back up and running. It took him a while to get back up to form, as it does with anybody who is out injured that long, but you always felt that it would come right with time, and it did.”

Two years on, Murray could now be on the cusp of one of the greatest achievements of his career.

“Although he doesn’t have huge experience as a matchday captain, he’s got massive experience as a leader in teams,” O’Mahony says.

He has the character, he has the personality, he has the playing ability to succeed down there. And he probably knows more about the Lions coaching staff and what they are going to bring than any other player on tour, so he has all the tools.

“He was coached for two seasons by Felix Jones, who will have a huge role in this South African attack. Then Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, Murray knows what they are going to bring to the South African team. He knows Jacques’ philosophies on defence, he knows Jones’ philosophies about their aerial game and their workrate, all the little nitty-gritty that Felix is so good with, and then he knows well about Rassie’s tactical prowess.” 

“I hope that him having the captain’s armband is an accelerator for him rather than being a massive burden,” Hurley says.

“And of course, it is a burden, but with certain players having more responsibility makes them grow in stature and their performances grow with that.

“No-one has really pushed Conor into that position before, so that’s why people are kind of querying it so much, but you know, maybe it’s just something that has been under our noses for so long and Gatland is potentially the first to properly see that.

“As a general leader, he’s always been contributing. Now he just is the leader.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more > 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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