At one point during the second-half on Saturday’s clash between England and Ireland, TV cameras zoomed in on Conor Murray with flakes of snow falling on Twickenham.
There were around 82,000 spectators at the stadium in Greater London and yet the Munsterman must have felt like the loneliest figure on the field as he enjoyed a rare break from a game that was played at an incredibly high tempo.
The scrum-half is the tipping point between winning and losing for coach Joe Schmidt’s strategic vision and he is Ireland’s most important player alongside Johnny Sexton.
In a successful Grand Slam campaign, Murray made everything tick for Schmidt’s side; from his box kicking, crisp passing, decision making and to the way he marshalled his pack around ruck time.
In the post-Brian O’Driscoll era, Ireland are still searching for on-field leadership and Murray has shown he can fill some of that void with his unselfish 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, touching down for a superb try against Italy and Scotland in round two and four, as well as initiating breaks that led to scoring chances during other matches.
Against the Scots earlier this month, he produced another sterling display and was the beating heart of Ireland’s display. He showed why he was the first choice for the Lions on the last two tours with superb speed and game management. Whenever he is in possession Ireland are in safe hands.
With 13 tries in 63 tests, Murray is fast cementing his status as the best number nine in the world. New Zealand’s Aaron Smith is considered the marquee scrum-half but has levelled off at a time when his Irish counterpart has started to show his ultimate class on the grand stage.
Aside from his intelligent running and passing, the 28-year-old’s ability to step into the kicking duties also illustrates another weapon in his arsenal.
When Jonny Sexton limped off injured against Wales, Murray stepped up to hammer over a late kick to make it a two-score game. Against England, he slotted over a penalty early in the second half to prevent any form of fightback from Eddie Jones’ side.
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 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 Murray evolve into Ireland’s most important player.
On Saturday, 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 at Twickenham has certainly bolstered confidence and morale, but the focus immediately shifts to the summer tours to Australia in June where Ireland will be bidding to close the gap with the All Blacks.
The Limerick native turns 29 in April. And with three Tests in Australia this summer, a tilt with the All Blacks in November and then a Rugby World Cup to look forward in 2019, he has the chance to earn the title of the best scrum-half of this era.
Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure: Murray will be at the centre of everything for the Men in Green.
Ireland secured the Six Nations Grand Slam by beating England 24-15 at Twickenham.
Here are three takeaways from Twickenham.
Jacob Stockdale history maker
The Ulsterman was an inspirational presence against England, breaking the record for most tries in a single Six Nations campaign – with seven in five matches.
The 21-year-old has been one of the leading lights in Joe Schmidt’s side this term, and popped up with a moment of magic at a period where Ireland seemed to lose momentum.
One of the best in the business with ball in hand, the Ulster youngster showed his stellar pace to take the ball on, chip it over of Mike Brown and touch down on the end line on the stroke of half-time.
Stockdale’s good positioning and lethal finishing under the bright lights of Twickenham makes him a key cog in Ireland’s Grand Slam wheel.
Although he didn’t get on much ball in the second-half, he was hungry for possession and chased down kicks at every opportunity with the hope of one ball spilling loose in a scoring position.
If the elusive winger can continue his stunning form leading into next year’s Rugby World Cup, then Schmidt has a hell of a player in a sparkling team.
Ireland show mettle at key moment
With Ireland soaking up pressure from England despite being 14 points ahead, Peter O’Mahony conceded a ‘strategic’ penalty to stop a certain try.
The Munsterman collapsed the maul 22 minutes in and was yellow carded – with Ireland instantly looking under pressure when reduced to 14 men.
But if England had scored straight away they would have gained momentum with the one-man advantage.
Five minutes into the sin binning, Owen Farrell picked out a cleverly weighed kick to send Eliot Daly through to touch down and cut the deficit to nine points.
However, England stayed one dimensional and lacked creativity, with Ireland holding possession and waiting for their moment to strike.
To show this character lacking one of their most influential forwards, and being on the backfoot, underlines the defensive strength of this side.
It was a good penalty to give away despite losing a man. O’Mahony had such faith in his pack that they could defend the line when he was off. They didn’t panic, developed phase play and sought opportunities to score.
Henderson the talisman
Ireland looked strong in defence throughout the contest and Henderson was at the fore of their dominance up front.
The 26-year-old carried the ball effectively and showed dynamic strength in contact to deny England’s pack from gaining a foothold in the match.
The Ulsterman has established himself as Ireland’s first-choice second-row and looks certain to be Schmidt’s starting lock for Japan 2019, alongside James Ryan.
Overall, Henderson played the line superbly, counter-rucked ferociously and set the tempo for a commanding display from the Ireland pack.
His turnover on Farrell in the first half set the tempo for a commanding display from the Ireland pack and he breached the gain line whenever Ryan and all were behind him in support.
He also functioned well at the tail of the line-out and prevented Maro Itoje from gaining a foothold on the contest.
Ireland may look at players like Conor Murray, Jonny Sexton and Stockdale as central figures to their Grand Slam success. But in Henderson, they have a real jewel who can inspire them to more glory in the future.
This year’s edition of the Six Nations concludes this weekend, with England’s home clash against Grand Slam-chasing Ireland the match where most of the attention will be.
Here, we break down each of the three fixtures.
ENGLAND V IRELAND – THE BREAKDOWN
This must be getting boring from an English perspective but once again the main focus is going to be what happens on the floor.
In defeats to Scotland and France, England have been abject at the breakdown – both with and without possession of the ball.
They were turned over nine times by the French and they just can’t happen against Ireland.
In contrast, Ireland have been masterful in keeping this area of the game clean especially when in possession, allowing quick ball and a licence to release their backs.
It’s another new-look back row for England with Chris Robshaw, Sam Simmonds and James Haskell lining up and they have to make sure they are on site before their Irish counterparts securing quick, clean ball for Richard Wigglesworth and doing all they can to disrupt Conor Murray and his charges.
WALES V FRANCE – THE FIRST 20 MINUTES
Not renowned as fast starters, Wales have flown out of the blocks in the two Six Nations games they have won this campaign.
They firmly went for the jugular against Scotland and ran out comfortable winners, last week in Cardiff, Italy were able to get a foothold in the game for a time but the damage had been done.
With a new-found attacking intent expect Wales to try and get France on the back-foot early on and try and play on mental insecurities in the French camp.
Yes, they may have picked up a win against England last time out, but had been less than average before that and if they find themselves on the end of some adversity and waves of red pressure are likely to crumple.
On the other hand, if they can keep it close early on, use their strike runners properly and build phases they could still make things difficult for Warren Gatland’s men.
ITALY V SCOTLAND – THE UNFORCED ERRORS COLUMN
In part, both sides have been the architects of their own downfall this campaign through some very basic errors.
This was evident last time out when Scotland spurned three guilt-edged chances against Ireland through some pretty sloppy passing in the back-line. It was the same story in Cardiff with mistakes aplenty from intercept passes, to the ball just not going to hand.
Italy have once again come under pressure from those who question their worth in the tournament and at times have not helped themselves with an inability to keep the ball in hand.
There were glimpses of improvement in Cardiff, but it’s a dim light at the end of a very long tunnel.
The side that can string phases together, and not make the glaring defensive errors we have seen previously will come out on top in this one.