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Ruaidhri O'Connor: Conor Murray's grip on the Irish No.9 shirt has never been weaker thanks to John Cooney

Major battle: Conor Murray has to prove he is still deserving of a starting spot for Ireland
Major battle: Conor Murray has to prove he is still deserving of a starting spot for Ireland
John Cooney
Luke McGrath
Jamison Gibson-Park
Caolin Blade

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

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.

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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 head into 2020 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 as 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.

In 2019, Murray started 11 of Ireland's matches as their form slumped.

Like Sexton, his form in the previous year had received international recognition as he was honoured at a gala dinner in France as the world's best player and, while it may not have had the global significance of Sexton's gong, it still showed his influence.

It was perhaps fitting that the French recognised the performances of the scrum-half ahead of the out-half given their fondness for a game-running No.9 and, at his best, Murray is a world-leader in this department.

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 he 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 on the former England assistant 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. His virtuoso performances probably don't attract the same scrutiny as Murray's, and 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: For most of the past decade we came to expect consistent excellence from Ireland's No.9, who was always in the conversation with Aaron Smith for the best scrum-half in the world, but since his serious 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: Will be 34 at the next World Cup but under contract until 2022, there is still faith within the Munster and Ireland ranks 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 Dan McFarland's Ulster side. A clutch kicker, he runs the province's game plan from the No.9 shirt 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 Munsterman 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 international 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 for his club.

Prospects: Still looks a little down the pecking order, but Farrell will surely consider his change of pace a potential benefit to the squad 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 penned his new contract with the western province, Marmion will come back into the equation when fit, but for now it is Blade who holds the No.9 jersey for his province and is pushing for Irish inclusion. Connacht's recent form struggles may hold him back.

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