Conor Murray's injury scare and how it could have altered Irish rugby history
"Yeah, you’re actually going home now."
Conor Murray, at his best, was right up there with Aaron Smith as the top scrum-half in world rugby for six straight years, and not far off for the rest of his time on the international stage.
Murray will be hoping to be restored to the Ireland team for this weekend's Six Nations clash with Italy, after he was a late withdrawal from the side that lost to France.
There was a considerable clamour for Craig Casey and John Cooney to be given a shot against the Italians, but do not be surprised to see Murray and Johnny Sexton back in tandem.
On the latest House of Rugby Ireland episode [LISTEN from 39:30 below], Leinster and Ireland hooker James Tracy recalled one remarkable Conor Murray performance, how it nearly didn't happen, and how it cost him the trip of a life-time.
Ireland had failed to stop a Grand Slam charge by England in the 2016 Six Nations but, buoyed by Connacht's PRO12 title win, they ent to South Africa that summer and ran the Springboks close in a series that included a first ever away Test triumph in Cape Town.
That autumn, Joe Schmidt assembled a large squad of players at Carton House, with several newcomers like Tracy, Jack O'Donoghue, Garry Ringrose and Dan Leavy included.
Reflecting on those four weeks in the Irish camp, which included his Test debut against Canada, Tracy revealed how a late injury scare cost him a seat on the plane to Chicago.
"It was a surreal feeling. It was class. I had a fall from grace at the end of that (first) week. We had a pitch session and were about to pack… the bags were already packed, ready to go to Chicago, for the game.
"As the pitch session finished, Conor Murray had a bit of a tight calf and they changed their plans, of who they were bringing as a reserve. I got tapped on the shoulder and it was, ‘Yeah, you’re actually going home now. Not going to Chicago. Have a good weekend’."
With uncertainty surrounding Murray, Luke McGrath travelled as a reserve along with the squad's other scrumhalf, Kieran Marmion.
So, instead of heading to the USA for the experience of a life-time, the Leinster hooker was back at home and tuning in, on November 5th 2016, as Ireland attempted to beat New Zealand for the first time in their Test history.
As the match played out, Murray started in the No.9 jersey (with Marmion on the bench) and he formed part of that famous 'Figure of 8' squad tribute - facing the Haka - for Anthony Foley.
The Munster scrumhalf then went on to deliver one of his finest performances in the green jersey, crossing for a first-half try and stepping up with a vital, nerve-settling penalty in the second half as the All Blacks threatened one of their patented comebacks.
Far from struggling with that calf issue, it was Murray that played the full 80 minutes as Ireland scored a late Robbie Henshaw try to seal victory by a scoreline of 40-29.
"It would have been a cool experience, but it was a good fall from grace," Tracy remarks.
"The first cap [a week later] was class. I’m not going to lie, that was pretty… it ruined my week! But that’s life in general. It humbles you fairly quickly."
Four and a half years on from that famous Ireland win at Soldier Field, Conor Murray remains a key figure in the success or failure of the team. In the Irish squad since 2011, he will have designs on a starting role at the 2023 World Cup, even with a growing line of talented scrum-halves eyeing up his jersey.