So while we’re on the subject of team-mates, let’s find fifind out who Murray picks out in a few categories…
Best room-mate: “I’ve roomed with George North, Dan Biggar, Stuart Hogg and Owen Farrell. I have to say Stuart because he was very understanding (Murray’s elbow inflicted the facial injury that ended Hogg’s tour). I hope we’re still friends. I definitely owe him one. He did like a strong cup of tea in the evening and I made him a few.”
Best singer: “Kyle Sinckler. He does Jerusalem well.”
Smartest: “Jesus, who should I say? Robbie Henshaw. He likes to think he’s very smart – and he can speak Irish and English.”
Best banter: “Sean O’Brien and James Haskell are both very funny men. They keep everyone entertained and keep spirits high.”
Wisest: “Is James Haskell the oldest? No, it’s Rory Best. I’d go to him because he’s the oldest.”
Getting to know your team-mates, both in a rugby and non-rugby sense, is one of the key facets of a Lions tour. It’s about knowing them as people and as players, so you can build relationships and combinations. This is particularly pertinent at half-back. Murray has built a hugely successful partnership with Johnny Sexton over the years for Ireland, but over recent weeks in New Zealand
he’s been getting to grips with what Farrell, who he also worked with on the 2013 tour, and Dan Biggar, who he’s never played with before, need.
“It’s about understanding what they want at the next phase,” says Murray. “You might not be able to see or hear them, so you need to feel what they want and what they are looking for from me. Spending time with Johnny Sexton over the last number of years, I probably have that with him more than the others; when you’ve played with someone for quite a long time it’s got to help. But that’s the challenge of a Lions tour; it’s what you’ve got to work hard on and that happens in training and working with these guys, and understanding how they think about the game.”
Murray comes across as a laid-back fella, cool, calm and unlikely to let much get to him. It’s probably just as well given the more intense nature of the three fly-halves on this tour. Biggar, Farrell and Sexton are all known for their vociferousness on the pitch and Murray is almost the yin to their yang.
“All three fellas are pretty fiery, so there are similarities. They want to win all the time and if standards aren’t upheld, they will let it be known that they’re not happy.
“It’s no surprise they’re the three tens that got selected; they’re really competitive and that’s important. They’re the standard-drivers in the squad. The out-half has got to lead and bark at people, to move people around the pitch. You can’t teach that; it’s in you as a person and those three people have it. They’re really good lads.”
As well as moulding his game to suit the man outside him, Murray has been learning from Rhys Webb and Greig Laidlaw, the players vying with him for that red No 9 shirt. The Irishman took a lot from his experiences alongside Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs in 2013, and is finding it’s similar now.
“I already knew Rhys and we get on. I hadn’t spent much time with Greig before but he’s a good fella. In training we’re all trying to help each other and make sure we’re as best prepared as we can be. Last time, training with Mike and Ben, we brought the best out of each other. Here, we’re all competing against each other, but we all absolutely want the Lions to win too. We try to help each other as best we can.”
From the outset of this tour, Murray was honest enough to admit he had different ambitions to 2013. Back then he was the least experienced of the trio but played off the bench in the second and third Tests. Four years older and four years wiser, the
28-year-old was the only scrum-half to have toured with the Lions before and he stated that playing in the Tests was his goal. He made the right noises about the battle for that shirt – “it is unbelievably competitive and that’s not a line I’ve been told to say” – but his focus was evident. It was a clear statement of intent, and he lined up at Eden Park with a nine on his back.
It’s not just how Murray has developed over the past four years that has been decisive, however. Lions coach Warren Gatland was notably effusive in his praise of Murray in 2013, when he was playing third fiddle behind Phillips and Youngs. He’s long been a player Gatland has admired and his stock has risen as he’s grown in experience and confidence.
As Gatland said last autumn: “He’s probably been one of the most improved players over the past two or three years. Back in 2013, he would probably have been the starting nine if there was another Test. He went out there as a number three, and ended up being number one.”
It’s unfair to point to Murray’s box-kicking as the key to his game; he’s also a great passer of the ball, a shrewd and tireless defender, and keeps opponents interested around the fringes of a ruck when he favours making a snipe. Yet it is his box-kicking that has been such a standout on this tour.
Part of that is the Lions putting huge emphasis on the kick-chase of their back three and trying to pressurise opposition teams with their aerial game. They are kicking to regain possession, not to open the door for a counter-attack. It wasn’t always effective at the start of the tour but as combinations gelled it came into its own. And that is down to Murray’s accuracy when box-kicking from behind the breakdown; he puts the ball exactly where the chasers want it. Much like a Mary Berry Victoria sponge, it’s perfect every time.
In the Maori game it worked spectacularly well. The Maori back-line looked very dangerous on paper but they offered nothing, being penned in by the Lions’ rush defence and pinned back by Murray’s kicks. The man himself plays down his own role, insisting it is a team effort.
“The pack are very good in terms of laying a platform; you are kicking on your own terms. People go after your breakdown when you’re trying to kick and they made that solid so I could kick with relatively little pressure. Then it’s the wingers you have chasing the kicks. If lads go all-out chasing them, it makes you look good. Against the Crusaders we didn’t get as many (kicks) back as we’d have liked but against the Maori we improved again. We kept on pushing the standards.”
So how much work does he put into perfecting that box-kick? “I’ve been doing it for long enough. It’s part of a basic skill that you need as a nine so I practise it every day at training, like the other nines.” Given Murray’s success on this tour, it’s easy to forget that just a few months ago his place was in jeopardy. A shoulder injury sustained against Wales in Ireland’s penultimate Six Nations match meant he played just 173 minutes of rugby in a two-month period before jumping on the plane to New Zealand. In a way, the break probably benefited him. He treated it like a mini pre-season and took the time to refresh. It was a similar story for his Munster team-mate Peter O’Mahony, who spent 18 months battling a knee issue after RWC 2015 before making a last-minute appearance against England in the Six Nations. A few weeks later, he was leading the Lions into the first Test against the All Blacks. “He’s a close friend of mine,” Murray says of O’Mahony. “I’ve seen the tough times he’s been through. He worked incredibly hard to get back in the picture. I can see it in him; he’s not just happy to be here, he’s pushing himself. He’s relishing it.” Murray has relished it too. Familiarising himself with players on the field, making new friends off it. And for all the deflecting of praise onto the team, Murray’s form has been a standout on this tour. As Graham Henry, who knows a thing or two about rugby, said: “He’s probably the best No 9 in the world.”
Heads up Taking on the Crusaders