Murray cements status as best scrum-half in the world

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Conor Murray.

With Ireland four points ahead in the dying stages of Saturday night’s game, Julian Savea collected possession on his own line as New Zealand went in search of a late, match-winning try.

Savea is the most dangerous winger in world rugby and his record of 45 tries in 50 games is scary reading for any opponent.

As he attempted to initiate an attack, Ireland players drove in en masse with Conor Murray forcing Savea out of play.

The tackle – one of eight Murray completed with none missed – would prove to be one of the pivotal moments in the encounter, as Ireland dotted over to score from the ensuing five-metre scrum.

The Munster scrum-half is central to coach Joe Schmidt’s strategic vision and is now Ireland’s most important player. He makes everything tick; from his box kicking, crisp passing, decision making and to the way he marshalls his pack around ruck time.

In the post-Paul O’Connell era, Ireland are still searching for on-field leadership but Murray has shown he can fill some of that void with his unfallible decision-making and ability to act as a ninth forward, with his physicality and voracious work rate ensuring team-mates follow his lead.

His ability to snipe is invaluable,  with opposite number Aaron Smith the victim of a clever dummy in the first period, which saw Murray skip in unopposed for a try.

Smith is considered the premier No9 in the world but could only watch as Murray dominated him across the 80 minutes.

Ireland, with a commanding 22-8 lead at half-time, continued to gather momentum and a driving maul five metres out from the All Blacks line saw Murray move the ball at pace to Johnny Sexton who sent Simon Zebo into the corner for their fourth try.

It’s never good to start celebrating early, especially against the world champions, and two converted tries in quick succession through TJ Perenara and Ben Smith cut the deficit to eight. Were Ireland in for a repeat of 2013?

Schmidt’s men needed a score to settle the nerves and they were duly awarded a penalty in front of the posts on 59 minutes after some industrious defensive work. With Sexton unable to take the kick due to an earlier knock, Murray stepped up to nail the penalty and extend the score-line.

Aside from his intelligent running and passing, the 27-year-old’s ability to step into the kicking duties like this illustrates another weapon in his armoury.

He keeps teams guessing at every opportunity and is a model of consistency to the players around him.

A lot of this is down to the experience of playing big games and the trust Schmidt has instilled in him during many heavy defeats down through the years. During the 2014 Six Nations, he was criticised for his slow distribution to Sexton, but hard work on his passing speed has seen him evolve into one of the best players in the world.

Against New Zealand, Murray’s ability to produce magic from any attack was a constant source of inspiration. He was the perfect link between forwards and backs and exactly what Schmidt needs to keep the pressure on such heavyweight opposition.

The historic victory has certainly bolstered confidence and morale, but the focus immediately shifts to the second Test in Dublin in a fortnight. Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure: Murray will be at the centre of everything for the Men in Green.

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Ireland claim first ever win over All Blacks

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In a breathtaking upset at Soldier Field, Ireland outscored the New Zealanders by five tries to four to seal their first win over the Kiwis in the 29th meeting between the two nations dating to 1905.

The Irish were forced to hold off a ferocious New Zealand fightback in the second half, which saw the All Blacks recover from a 30-8 deficit to go within four points at 33-29.

But with the majority of fans in a 62,300 sellout crowd roaring them on, Ireland scored a fifth and final try through blockbusting center Robbie Henshaw, converted by replacement fly-half Joey Carbery, to clinch a famous victory.

It was New Zealand’s first defeat since their loss to Australia in August 2015.

Only last month, the All Blacks had set a new world record for consecutive victories with their 18th win in a row.

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Schmidt’s obsession with bettering the All Blacks

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Joe Schmidt.

Sunday’s crunch tie against New Zealand represents a colossal test for Ireland as they look to derail the All Blacks’ 18 game unbeaten run.

Much of the pre-match talk ahead of the Chicago clash points to another win for Steve Hansen’s men, but Ireland are, naturally, relishing the prospect of overcoming the world champions for the first time in history.

After the heartbreaking defeat to the All Blacks in Dublin in 2013, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, born in the small town of Woodville in New Zealand’s South Island, is extra-motivated to beat a side who are coming off the back of a stellar Rugby Championship campaign.

On that November afternoon three years ago, Ireland – playing some of the most majestic rugby under Schmidt’s reign – marched into an early 19-0 lead but conceded an agonising last minute try to lose 24-22. With many lessons taught in defeat, victory against the All Blacks is driving this Irish side.

Schmidt has never been allowed to forget it, as the game has been constantly referenced in press conferences, no matter the opposition, and is a shadow that hangs over both him and his senior players.

Schmidt’s team selection for tonight is strong and should be enough to threaten their all-conquering opponents, but the question remains whether Ireland can compete for the full 80 minutes. If the Men in Green believe in their game plan and attack on and off the ball, then they have a chance.

The decision to select Rob Kearney at full-back and stick with the centre partnership of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw emphasises the level of importance Schmidt has placed on this game because, with the second Test in two weeks, one or two of these key players could have been held back.

Of the new faces, expect Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery to make an impact; two young players who have been rewarded after their dazzling performances for Leinster in the Pro 12. Ringrose, in particular, has been a revelation, with many considering him a future Irish 13.

Fitness and a solid bench with the ability to make an impact are among the critical factors, and the addition of defence coach Andy Farrell to the ranks has helped improved structures around set-pieces. Farrell was England’s defence coach when they beat the All Blacks in 2012 – the last time a Northern Hemisphere team defeated the world champions.

With Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan in fine form for Leinster and Munster of late, this is a seminal test for the Irish line-out as Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – two world class locks – are withdrawn for this game. If Ireland can engineer a platform of dominance at the line-out, then they have enough steel in their back line to unleash the significant qualities of Jonny Sexton and Henshaw in midfield.

The All Blacks’ pace and power will be difficult to stop in the closing stages, with Ardie Savea, Malakai Fekitoa and TJ Perenara to come off the bench. Ireland will have a tough task on their hands to curtail that trio’s impact when they are inevitably introduced and must stay organised and tighten the defensive line.

Ending the season unbeaten is Hansen’s major goal, but, at the very least, if Ireland put on a good showing on US soil, then there is renewed belief that they can beat them in Dublin on November 19.

A competitive performance will undoubtedly please Schmidt but his longing for victory against his home nation is a burning ambition, and one that won’t go away until he achieves it.

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