This new scrum-half was whipping wristy passes out in front of outhalf-for-the-day Scott Deasy, and a Munster backline that had looked stagnant and uninspired in the first half were hitting the ball at pace. There was no waiting around at rucktime. Once the ball was there, Murray was on it and sending it spiralling flat through the air … no crabbing across, no loopers, no waiting around and allowing the opposition defence to realign. In the words of legendary scribe Edmund van Esbeck, it was ‘a most accomplished’ performance. He made playing scrum-half look easy, something very few debuting Irish halfbacks have managed to do in the last decade.
Munster had considerable depth at scrum-half, however, with Tomás O’Leary, Peter Stringer and the aforementioned Williams ahead of Murray in the queue. While O’Leary struggled with an eye injury picked up against Leinster in the league, Stringer was actually going from strength to strength for Munster, and featured heavily in Kidney’s selections for the November internationals. Williams played in the Tuesday night friendly against a second string touring Australian side, and his performance in atrocious conditions was first-rate as Munster ground them into the dirt.
Murray got some gametime off the bench, but he didn’t get his first start in the red until the beginning of March, in a game against Newport Gwent Dragons in Musgrave Park. It was one of those games scheduled slap-bang in the middle of the Six Nations when internationals and quality rugby alike are generally absent from proceedings. Murray showed up in a big way on the day, however, and his performance was good enough that he was retained in the No9 jersey ahead of Peter Stringer for the next game in Cardiff; quite a surprising call from the normally conservative Tony McGahan.
This time out, the Munster selection was dominated by internationals returning from a huge final-day win over England. The young scrum-half didn’t look at all out of place, and even with a fit-again Tomás O’Leary returning to the fold, Murray was the starting No9 for the remainder of the season, including an excellent performance in the Magners League Grand Final against rivals Leinster.
Once he was called into the Irish World Cup training panel – as one of five scrum-halves – the Mole thought it likely that he would travel. He’s got a more complete game than any other No9 in the mix for the jersey, and he was on a hot run of form from the end of the season. However, in the end it probably took the Mother Of All Shockers from Tomás O’Leary to hustle himself off the plane and secure Murray’s place in the squad. I’d imagine that Kidney had to fork out the change-of-name fee for the ticket himself; O’Leary is a particular favourite and would have long been booked in.
I don’t think it’s at all unlikely that Murray could wrest the starting scrum-half position away from Eoin Reddan during this tournament. Reddan can sometimes play a bit panicky, which is the last thing you would expect from a double Heineken Cup-winner.
Kidney seems averse to playing the provincial halfbacks together at international level, which has too often seen Sexton paired with the clunking O’Leary. That Ireland’s best performance of the past two seasons came against England with Reddan and Sexton in tandem doesn’t seem to have registered with him, the pairing not having started a single one of the warm-ups together. It has been O’Leary/Sexton [vs Scotland]; Reddan/O’Gara [vs France]; Boss/Wallace [vs Connacht]; O’Leary/Sexton [vs France]; Reddan/O’Gara [vs England].
I understand that the provincial halfbacks partner each other at level week-in, week-out and there’s an existing familiarity between them, but it still seems barely credible to me that we’ve not seen Sexton partnered by Reddan, Boss or Murray – the three scrum-halves in the squad – for any reasonable length of time. It strikes me as a distinct possibility that, just as in the last world cup, we could go into a vital group game with a halfback partnership that has never started together. That time out it was Reddan and O’Gara vs France, this time out it could be Murray and Sexton against Italy.
Personally speaking, I feel that this could be Ireland’s halfback partnership for the foreseeable future. Murray has the skills, the physical ability and the temperament to be Ireland’s scrum-half for the next decade, and indeed to be the best Irish scrum-half of the professional era.