Conor Murray still taking nothing for granted in fourth Rugby World Cup outing

Ireland v Tonga: Scrumhalf will partner Johnny Sexton for a 69th Test having first paired up at halfback in 2011 World Cup

The old one-two, or 9-10 to be accurate, are back in harness again for Ireland. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will today start their 69th Test together, second on the all-time international list behind George Gregan and Stephen Larkham. But not even the enduring Wallabies legends could claim to have played together in four World Cups, which has to be a unique achievement for the Irish halfback pairing.

They first started a Test together in the win over the USA at the 2011 tournament in New Zealand on the scrumhalf’s full international debut. They did so again in the wins over Canada, Italy and France in 2016, as well as those over Scotland and Samoa four years ago, before suffering their only World Cup loss to New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

Ever since ‘le drop’ Sexton has been feeling the love, not least when being submerged by team-mates and hailed by an Aviva full house when scoring a try on his 100th cap against Japan in November 2021. He is probably Ireland’s most influential player of all time and currently the country’s most popular rugby player.

By contrast, while Murray led out the Irish team on his 100th cap against South Africa last November, only to have his day end prematurely due to a torn hamstring, he hasn’t always been afforded the kind of acknowledgment that is due to Ireland’s greatest and most-capped scrumhalf of all time.


—  It’s my fourth World Cup, people have mentioned that and I’m aware of it, but I just really appreciate where I am and I’m really grateful for the opportunities

Although overtaken by Jamison Gibson-Park in this World Cup cycle, his response has been typical of such a temperamentally calm person and utterly professional rugby player.

He’s certainly appreciated by those close to him, and his parents Gerry and mother Barbara, and his sisters Aisling and Sarah, are all out to support him.

“Yeah, they are, big time. They’re hugely excited, it’s probably the last one as well so they’re definitely making the most of it. So yeah, it’s brilliant. Friends are starting to come over this weekend, a few people have ‘follow your team’ tickets and things like that.

“My dad is on his way over on the ferry as we speak, so it’s great. Families love it. You see it when they turn up how excited they are, so it just kind of hits home how big it is.”

His father is, thankfully, well on the mend after his bike collided with a lorry while cycling near his home on the N20 near Patrickswell in the week of Ireland’s Six Nations win over Scotland last February.

“He’s in good health and he’s back golfing and doing everything he loves. It’s great that he’s able to do it.”

In good spirits and speaking as freely as he ever does, Murray admitted his journey now feels long.

“I’m looking back at the photos here from 2011. The journey, I’ve talked about it before, about coming through and getting in for 2011 but where I am now, I suppose, it’s my fourth World Cup, people have mentioned that and I’m aware of it, but I just really appreciate where I am and I’m really grateful for the opportunities.

“I am really lucky to have made four. I’ve seen in every cycle that people fall out through injury or through being out of favour or form. It’s just a grateful one, I suppose, I’m really lucky to be part of a squad, especially this one.

“They’ve all been great craic and they have all been talented squads, but this one ticks a lot of those boxes, the camaraderie we have. I hope that shows from the inside out, we don’t need to talk about that, we’re a really tight group and obviously with the potential we have.

“So yeah, I’m just excited to be part of the environment and excited about where we can go.”

In what way has he changed since the 22-year-old in 2011?

“How long have you got?” he responded, with a wry smile.

“Obviously experience, that’s something that will come with time and yeah, 2011, as I’ve said before I was just young and naive and I didn’t take anything for granted, but it was all new and it was new experience after new experience.

“And as a person and where I am as a player now, going back to being grateful about being here, I know how special they are, World Cups, and the memories you can really make and also how difficult it is to do well at World Cups.

“So, in terms of a player, I think the main difference motivation-wise is I’m way more aware of how hard you have to work both as an individual and a group to get what you want.

I know it’s a cliche but we’re just looking at ourselves to push on from the Romania game which was a good start

“Back then, you’re not as aware, you’re just starting off in your career but now I think you can see the pathway. But it’s about doing everything right and trying to perform at your best. I think that’s what I’m more aware of now as opposed to back then.”

Murray’s composure and experience was invaluable on that difficult night in Bayonne when he scored Ireland’s key second try in a man of the match performance. Similar conditions against similar opponents with the same referee will apply on Saturday night against Tonga.

“Yeah, I think the last time we looked it was due to rain, wasn’t it? It was pushed out until Sunday but now it has come back in. So, we’re obviously going to keep a keen eye on that because that will affect the game, the tactics, things like that.

“It rained in Bayonne when we played Samoa and you saw how that game went, it was a bit tricky for us given the weather, although we could have gone a lot better.

“They’re a similar outfit, we’ve obviously looked at them a lot this week and they have a powerful forward pack and their backline is quite explosive. So similar to Samoa in that if the game gets loose that’s advantage to them a little bit.

“But they do have quite a structure around their free-flowing rugby as well, we’ve seen that over the week in the analysis.

“Yeah, with these types of teams it can be really tricky, it can be really open and get loose,” Murray admitted. “I know it’s a cliche but we’re just looking at ourselves to push on from the Romania game which was a good start. And as you probably saw, there was a lot of stuff we could have done better and pushed on a little bit more.

“I know the scoreline was quite big in the end but, you know, we’re looking at fine-tuning a lot of things.”

With age comes wisdom, or an even greater sense of calm? His answer is actually a little surprising.

“It never changes, you’re always really, really nervous. Can’t eat!”