How Conor Murray became Irish Rugby's most important player 8 months ago

How Conor Murray became Irish Rugby's most important player

"There were two standouts in my time with the Munster academy, as close to certainties as we could make out, and that was Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray. The two of them came through and they only had a blur in the A team. They went straight from the academy into the senior team, and as an 8/9 combination back then, you just thought these two guys are going the whole way to the top." - Ian Costello, former Munster Academy coordinator

Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony came through the Munster academy towards the end of the last decade and now as we approach the end of this one they are among Munster's and Ireland's most important players.

Picking which players will go on and achieve great feats in sport is a very tricky business at underage level, it's like trying to crack the stock market, even the bluest of blue chip prospects can fall well short of expectations at times, but Costello was right with O'Mahony and Murray.

One went on to captain the British & Irish Lions while the other progressed into the best scrum-half in world rugby, and although New Zealand's Aaron Smith may contest the latter part of that statement, Murray is one of the few players in a very talented Irish team that can lay a legitimate claim to being the best in his position in the world.

And now, with swirling speculation surrounding his present condition, and indeed his future over the last few weeks, Murray belongs to Irish Rugby until at least 2022.

Numerous reports published before the scrum-half's contract extension on Wednesday indicated that the Limerick half-back would become the highest paid player in Irish Rugby if he committed his future to Munster and the IRFU, and this week he confirmed that he would remain at Thomond Park for at least the next four years.

It's a tremendous coup for Munster and the IRFU to lock Murray in for what should be the prime years of his career and there's a case to be made that he is the union's most important signing. The IRFU are wholly funding this one and Murray is reported to be on a base salary of approximately €650,000 per season up until June 2022.

Firstly, while John Cooney, Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion have all made great strides over the last few seasons, particularly Cooney who has blossomed since swapping Galway for Belfast, Murray is still by some distance Ireland's best option to feed the scrum.

He started every game of the Lions Test series last year, every game of Ireland's Grand Slam winning campaign this year and he was also the only scrum-half in Europe to be nominated for the Six Nations Player of the Championship award.

Secondly, he's continuing to improve as a player. Murray's passing and kicking have always been big strengths of his throughout his career, but increasingly we're starting to see him add to more areas of his game.

He has become absolutely lethal around the base of the ruck and has either exploited holes himself (New Zealand, Chicago, 2016, and New Zealand, second Test, 2017), exploited holes for others (Simon Zebo v Leicester Tigers, 2016) or space on the opposite side of the pitch with an increasing tendency to look for cross kicks from the base of the ruck (Lions second Test, 2017).

Last season we also saw him take up some goal kicking responsibilities for both Munster and Ireland.

Murray used to kick for his club side Garryowen so it is a facet of his play that has been there before but this year he took over kicking responsibilities for Ireland at certain points during the Six Nations and it's a valuable asset to have if Johnny Sexton is unable to step up to the tee late in games.

Thirdly, with the arrival of Joey Carbery at Munster this season, it's vital that the IRFU give the young playmaker an experienced halves partner to aide his rugby development.

Johnny Sexton had Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan through his early years at Leinster, Paddy Jackson had Ruan Pienaar at Ulster and Carbery should now have Murray when the scrum-half returns from a neck injury in the near future.

Carbery has made a strong start to his time in Limerick but he did just have one start at fly-half last season for Leinster. Putting Murray in alongside him should only aide his development.

Lastly, Murray is an extremely marketable player. According to Onside, a management consultancy in sponsorship strategy, Murray was among the most 12 marketable rugby players in Ireland in 2016 but has since climbed into the top six alongside Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney. The firm claim he is second to Sexton among current players.

Munster’s revenue streams brought in €16.9M for last season with the province detailing at their AGM in June that sponsorship income continues to grow, therefore, it's vitally important that they hold onto players like Murray that can be big drivers for the province in this area.

Munster still owe over €6.9m on their stadium loan to redevelop Thomond Park and they have averaged just 11,393 fans through three home games so far this season.

Granted, it's the start of the season, and that number should steadily rise for the European games later this month, but it does underline the importance of keeping players like Murray, CJ Stander and captain Peter O'Mahony, all of which the IRFU signed to new deals over the past year.

Signing Murray to a new four-year deal is a massive coup for Munster and the IRFU. He is the best in his position in the country, and quite possibly the world. He is one of only three Irish players to start every Test on the Lions series last year and one of only four Irish players to be nominated for the Six Nations Player of the Championship award

He continues to add to his game and is vital for Munster from a commercial point of view, which is salient given the fact that Munster suffered a cash-flow loss of just under €0.9M last season, which they claim is due to a reduction of €1.6M in IRFU grant income.

Strong arguments could be made for Johnny Sexton, and indeed 25-year-old Leinster teammate Tadhg Furlong, but given his age, talent and financial importance to Munster, Murray's contract extension ranks as one of the most important signings the IRFU have made in some time.

Great business for a great player.