Rumours of Conor Murray's demise prove greatly exaggerated
"The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist."
That excellent Charles Baudelaire observation that was adapted and brought to a brand new audience by The Usual Suspects. The devil hiding in plain sight. On Sunday in Yokohama, Conor Murray was given the green light to use his full toolbox and he completely flummoxed the Scots.
For the past eight months, Ireland tried to convince the world that the box-kick was not part of their armoury, or game-plan, anymore. The tactic had paid huge dividends for Ireland, under Joe Schmidt, and had become a stick for opposition coaches to beat us with.
What did Schmidt or Ireland care? They were winning and they were causing mayhem for their opponents (see Twickenham in March 2018). It was working a treat and then, just like that...
Irish box-kicks were a rare species in the Six Nations and rarer still in the World Cup warm-ups. After the 27-3 thrashing of Scotland, in their World Cup opener, it is safe to assume they were keeping their powder dry.
Murray was given the all-clear to wreak havoc and the Scots only had one clean aerial take - from seven box-kicks - when an Irish player got up to contest.
On the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery discussed Murray's performance and what it means for Ireland over the rest of the tournament.
"Conor Murray contributed massively," observed Trimble. "Some of his box-kicks were good but his kicking to touch and his exits were unbelievable. He was back to his best, I thought."
It was clear, after a frantic back-and-forth, when things settled down that Ireland wanted to throw Scotland off with some different set-plays than they may have been used to seeing. Off a fourth minute lineout, Josh van der Flier stepped in as scrum-half so that Murray could be used as a carrier in a move that eventually gained over 35 metres and pinned the Scots back on their five-metre line:
Conor Murray's exits, especially in the first half, were sublime. With the forwards getting the upper-hand and earning an early Irish lead, Murray's task was to get his side back down the pitch as far as possible with his exits.
For the first 40 minutes, he opted to go long rather than going for too many contestables. The effect was that so many Irish exits, from in and around their 22, gave Scotland the ball back but beyond the halfway line.
One clearing kick, on 16 minutes, took Ireland from inside their 22 all the way down to the Scottish 10-metre line:
On 19 minutes, Murray's defensive bite - always a big part of his game - was to the fore when he teamed up with Johnny Sexton to rag-doll Scotland winger Tommy Seymour and plonk him back a few yards.
Sexton gave up the goal-kicking duties to his half-back partner as he was down getting treatment in the immediate moments after Tadhg Furlong crashed over for Ireland's third try. The scrumhalf pinged that one over but did miss two further attempts at the posts.
Two minutes after that, Murray's box-kick caused Seymour to knock-on after Jacob Stockdale got up to contest. Cian Healy charged onto the breaking ball and Ireland had profited massively, again, from the tactic.
Murray and Ireland were in the zone, at this stage, and the Scots were flailing.
Scotland won 94% of their rucks but they lost a couple of crucial ones around this period and were struggling in defence too. When they switched off and one Irish ruck, 40 metres from their line, CJ Stander picked and sprinted through the gap. Murray sprinted the support line but he was perhaps a yard too far back for Stander to catch him out of the corner of his eye.
Had he seen or heard his scrumhalf, and got a pass away, it would have made for a simple try:
Try-chance gone, for now, Murray was first Irish player into the ruck until the heavy artillery arrived to keep the attack alive.
Murray's only possible error of the first 40 was in allowing his forwards numerous pick-and-goes inside the Scotland 22, which eventually led to Stuart McInally winning his side a turnover. However, given that the Irish forwards were dominant, and had combined for three tries already, it is understandable why he let them have at it.
Near the end of the half, the Munster scrumhalf showed his steel in defence again when he pounced on McInally and, along with Jack Conan, dragged the Scottish captain back down the pitch:
In the second half, with the rain in Yokohama getting heavier and Ireland holding a 16-point lead, Murray went box-kick crazy and, after a comfortable Duncan Taylor claim, it began to pay big dividends.
On 43 minutes, Murray put big air on a kick and Andrew Conway reached the ball in time to bat in backwards, only for it to fall into the clutches of McInally. Nine minutes later and Seymour was the target again, as Murray kicked off the back of an Irish maul. The Scottish winger knocked on and Ireland had themselves a scrum inside their opponent's half.
Two minutes later and it was Sean Maitland's turn to spill a Murray box-kick, although it went backwards and Scotland retained possession.
On 55 minutes, the killer blow and it was that combination of Murray with the box-kick and Conway the chaser. He put up a tortuous kick and Conway had little intention of catching, he merely wanted to throw Ryan Wilson off. That he did, and Wilson could not take. The ball bounced forward to Jordan Larmour and Ireland were in prime attacking condition:
Conway drifted back out wide and Murray slung a pass out to his right wing. The Munster winger did the rest and the bonus point was secured. It was Murray's second try assist of the game.
His final action on the pitch was to miss a touchline conversion, right and wide, but he left the field with the Scots emptied and the job most definitely done.
Rumours of Conor Murray's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
CATCH THE LATEST HOUSE OF RUGBY EPISODE HERE
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The latest episode sees Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery praise Iain Henderson and Conor Murray, look ahead to big World Cup games on the horizon.