CLEVER

Rugby World - - C O N O R M U R R AY -

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

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