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Friday 24 January 2020

Murray's in a battle for place

Conor's grip on No 9 jersey has never been weaker

UNDER PRESSURE: Conor Murray, in action for Munster against Saracens, is in a battle to keep the Ireland No 9 jersey. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
UNDER PRESSURE: Conor Murray, in action for Munster against Saracens, is in a battle to keep the Ireland No 9 jersey. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

On the eve of the World Cup quarter-final, Johnny Sexton predicted that it wouldn't be long before the media were writing him and scrum-half Conor Murray off.

The next day, they broke the Irish record for appearances by a half-back partnership against New Zealand with their 56th outing together. Neither played to their potential and, as Sexton foretold it, they approach Christmas with plenty of speculation about their places in the team.

For the out-half, it's more a question of fitness. The 2018 World Player of the Year had responded to the disappointment of Japan with a series of strong Leinster performances.

He is the bookies favourite to be named the captain, but the knee injury he picked up against Northampton Saints has put his place in jeopardy.

Murray is a different matter.

The Munster scrum-half has been struggling for top form since he injured his neck in the summer of 2018.

He missed the win over New Zealand in November and came back to action a year ago and has not been able to get back to his own high level of performance.

Chasing

He is contracted with the IRFU until 2022 and is clearly seen as one of those who can contribute much to the cause for the 2023 effort.

And yet, the gap between the 30-year-old and the chasing field has never been closer with John Cooney, who he'll likely face tomorrow night, breathing down his neck.

The IRFU policies have ensured there are Irish-qualified operators in the specialist positions and as a result there are now real rivals for the first time since Murray took a stranglehold of the No 9 shirt at the 2011 World Cup.

Only Rory Best and Sexton started more games for Ireland than Murray in the decade just gone but, with the Andy Farrell era about to get under way, his position has never been less secure.

Farrell is aware of Murray's capacity for greatness and values his defensive contribution.

Equally, there is pressure Farrell to distance himself from the previous regime and the clearest way to do that is to make some big selection calls for the Six Nations.

His predecessor almost always picked Murray and Sexton when they were fit, even when they were clearly struggling to perform in the last year.

At Munster, Alby Mathewson was introduced earlier and earlier before being shipped out but the Kiwi's zippy displays shone a light on the pedestrian nature of what Murray was producing at the base of the ruck.

Cooney, meanwhile, has been producing big moment after big moment. He does make mistakes, but his game-changing moments cannot be ignored for long.

Farrell had five scrum-halves in for his pre-Christmas camp but he'll have to narrow that down for the Six Nations squad. Then, he'll have to decide who wears No 9 against Scotland on February 1.

The main man: Conor Murray (Age 30, caps 78)

Form: There has been consistent excellence from Murray who was always in the conversation with Aaron Smith for the best scrum-half in the world, but since his neck injury his performance levels have dipped and his service and decision-making has slowed, while his box-kicking has become less effective, in part due to the lack of policing of the blocking of chasers.

Prospects: Thirty-four at the next World Cup but under contract until 2022, there is still faith that Murray can rediscover his best form. Farrell is a fan, but he has options and may feel that a shake-up could get a response from the man who has been top dog for a long time.

The form man: John Cooney (Age 29, caps 8)

Form: The top scrum-half in the Champions Cup, Cooney was the first scrum-half cut from Joe Schmidt's squad before the World Cup and has channelled his frustration into a series of superb performances for Ulster. A clutch kicker, he runs the province's game-plan and has come up with big plays to boot, with his try against Clermont a real highlight.

Prospects: Schmidt worked with a young Cooney at Leinster and never seemed able to separate the academy prospect from the polished gem in front of his eyes. Farrell was part of that decision-making and may share the Kiwi's concerns, but Cooney's match-winning ability is surely too good to ignore this time around?

The age profile fits: Luke McGrath (Age 26, caps 19)

Form: Excellent at the World Cup, where he made an impact whenever he was involved, McGrath has not quite sustained those heights since coming back and was swapped out and in by Leinster for their back-to-back European games against Northampton. His kicking game and defensive attributes are probably the closest to Murray's while he breaks well, but his pass sometimes lets him down.

Prospects: McGrath's age-profile is ideal for this World Cup cycle, while he is a recognised leader in the country's most successful province. He is a superb defender who punches way above his weight in the tackle, while he has played a lot of rugby with Sexton, Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery. If he can regain his Leinster spot, he ticks a lot of boxes.

The new face: Jamison Gibson-Park (Age 27, caps 0)

Form: Now that he's no longer part of a three-way equation with Leinster's other overseas recruits, the Kiwi has played well in blue this season and offers something different to all of his rivals with his ability to change the tempo of a game. Impressive in recent weeks, he is capable of keeping McGrath out of the starting XV.

Prospects: Still looks a little down the pecking order, but Farrell will surely consider his change of pace a potential benefit as he looks to evolve the game plan. Gibson-Park's kicking game is not as strong as the others, but like McGrath he has a strong relationship with most of the out-halves.

The western force: Caolin Blade (Age 25, caps 0)

Form: The starter in Connacht even before Kieran Marmion picked up his latest injury, Galway-native Blade was very impressive early in the season and executes Connacht's game plan with pace while offering good defence despite his diminutive stature.

Prospects: Having signed his new contract, Marmion will come back into the equation when fit, but for now it is Blade who holds the and is pushing for Irish inclusion. Connacht's recent form struggles may hold him back.

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