Conor Murray will be “firing on all cylinders” if he makes his first appearance of the season against New Zealand, according to Iain Henderson.
Scrum-half Murray has not played since injuring his neck on Ireland‘s summer tour of Australia, but could yet face the All Blacks in Dublin on Saturday.
Ireland omitted Murray from their 42-man autumn Test squad, but boss Joe Schmidt has now admitted that was mainly to not put undue pressure on the British & Irish Lions half-back to return this month.
Now though, Ireland lock Henderson insists Murray can return in peak condition and form if pressed into service at the Aviva Stadium this weekend.
“If Conor were to come back in, I have no doubt in my mind that he would be back firing on all cylinders if he steps back in to play,” said Henderson.
“But we just have to wait and see how his fitness is, how he slots back in to the training regime.
“And if that’s going to happen, brilliant, but if it doesn’t, we’ve got three scrum-halves there, any of whom will step up to the challenge if selected.”
Ireland ground past Argentina 28-17 in Dublin on Saturday, spluttering into life in a bid to kickstart their autumn schedule proper.
Schmidt’s men had swatted aside Italy 54-7 in Chicago the previous week, but in truth that was a second-string sent into action with at least one eye on long-term development.
Kiwi boss Schmidt rolled out all his frontline players to take on the Pumas, but the hosts produced a ring-rusty showing against Mario Ledesma’s obdurate Argentina.
Back-to-back world champions New Zealand may only have edged out England 16-15 at Twickenham on Saturday, but the relentless rain proved a genuine leveller on the west London fare.
Sean O’Brien broke his arm during his first Test match in 12 months against Argentina, and will miss the hugely-anticipated All Blacks encounter.
Robbie Henshaw tweaked a hamstring and was withdrawn in the warm-up against the Pumas, while Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion also wound up with minor niggles.
Aki and scrum-halves Marmion and Luke McGrath bagged Ireland’s tries, with Will Addison making a reasonable fist of his full debut as a last-minute replacement for Henshaw in the centres.
Munster star Murray would doubtless boost Ireland’s rhythm and tactical kicking if he steps in against New Zealand though, but Ulster lock Henderson believes Schmidt’s men are well covered for all eventualities.
“Murray has been a massive part of our game over the last few years, he’s a quality player,” said Henderson.
“But Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath have both stepped in and done a great job, with both scoring tries.
“We have quality players there, and they all know how to play the game we want to play. Joe has full confidence in all of them as well.”
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Ireland will host the All Blacks in Dublin on Saturday night, bidding to beat the back-to-back world champions for just the second time in history.
Ireland’s Kiwi head coach Schmidt so nearly toppled his compatriots at the Aviva Stadium five years ago, the hosts racing into a 22-7 half-time advantage only to relinquish that lead, and possible victory, at the death.
Julian Savea ran in an overtime try to level the scores, before Ryan Crotty slotted the touchline conversion – at the second attempt after Ireland chased prematurely – to steal the win and break home hearts.
Ireland finally registered their first-ever win over New Zealand with the stunning 40-29 victory in Chicago in 2016, but Schmidt admitted that has still not eased the pain of that Dublin defeat five years back.
“I’d be delighted if we can be as competitive as the last three times we’ve played them,” Schmidt said.
“The fact that the points differential between us is so narrow. The game in 2013: I’m still bleeding from that.
“It hurts when that happens. Chicago was a great band aid, but two weeks later we were very, very much in the game, and it was very tough, very, very tough.
“As physical as it was against Argentina, playing against New Zealand has been a step up. The challenge for our guys is to step up. I’m confident they can.
“But at the same time I’m well aware of the challenges the All Blacks present. It has such little to do with me, I think I step back on a Thursday and from then it’s really player-driven.”
Ireland lost the luckless Sean O’Brien to a broken arm in Saturday’s patchy 28-17 victory over Argentina in Dublin.
Head coach Schmidt admitted his relief at having two quality opensides in Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier waiting in the wings to fill the sizeable chasm left by O’Brien’s latest injury absence.
“We have a few good sevens, with Josh having gone well in Chicago,” Schmidt said.
“It’s a tough decision for us during the week, which is exactly what we want.
“We’ve got a few options, and you have Tadhg Beirne, who is half a second row and half a back-row.
“So it’s an uncomfortable decision that’s going to have to be made, but it does add comfort knowing that Dan is there on the back of a couple of good hit-outs and could slot straight back in as well as he did.
“And I don’t anticipate it being too different in future.
“He spent some time with us in the Six Nations and was in Australia too. To have that there is important for us.
“I’ll have a decent look again at this game (Argentina) and make some decisions off the back of that.
“And we’ll look at guys coming back and how they go on Monday and Tuesday, to get them in the mix. At the moment, I’ve certainly learned not to make too many impetuous decisions.”
David Pocock says it is “all about the mental side of things” after Australia suffered an eighth Test match defeat this year.
The Wallabies’ 9-6 loss to Wales in Cardiff was their first in the fixture since 2008 following 13 successive victories.
Substitute Dan Biggar’s late penalty saw Wales follow Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina in toppling Australia during recent months.
Pocock and company now head to Padova for an appointment with Itay next weekend, before a testing season finale against England at Twickenham.
“It is all mental,” Wallabies number eight Pocock said. “Physically, everyone is strong and fit. and it is all about the mental side of things.
“As players, we know that and are working on that. I suppose you are reminded how tough Test match rugby is.
“We are obviously disappointed. We were right in it. Our defence was good, but our attack didn’t fire as well as we had hoped, and that happens sometimes.”
Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika added: “Our defence was excellent, and the effort and just the energy around the game was really good.
“But too many small errors – whether at the lineout at key moments or in discipline – key moments cost us and released the pressure valve that we had on the opposition.”
Cheika, meanwhile, played down any relevance of Australia losing to Wales 10 months before the countries meet again in a 2019 World Cup pool match.
“Everyone has got a different opinion on that stuff,” he said.
“My opinion on rugby is when you get to the game no-one is thinking about what happened 10 years ago, one minute ago. You are thinking about what you are going to do for the next 80 minutes in that individual moment.
“Yes, it’s in our nature to want to look at how this could effect that and the knock on like it’s a big game of dominoes, but it’s not really.
“You just turn up, kick off and it’s on for 80 minutes. When that game happens, it will be an individual moment of itself and it’s about who is best on the day.”