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Six Nations: Forwards must support Murray

By David Kelly

In order for Ireland to come close to achieving a historic success in Paris, they must start better than they have against Wales and Italy. That doesn't necessarily mean starting quickly. Just better.

Hitting the ground running on Sunday with many of the same players that finished like an express train against Italy is the alluring prospect which many think might suffice against the French.

Yet inviting such a simplistic premise into any reasonable analysis repudiates every shred of logic involved in the preparation of international teams for a Six Nations championship.

The focus on the scrum-half debate ignores not only the demands of last Saturday's victory, but also much wider issues within this Irish team - from how the back-row function to an even more holistic debate about the direction of this squad as it slowly evolves towards 2015.

Highlighting Conor Murray as the weak link is egregious in the extreme - just as it has been wide of the mark to criticise Jonathan Sexton for erratic kicking, or the hit-and-miss contributions of three back-row players who are not fulfilling their remit as a world-class trio.

Murray, it can be made quite clear, does not wish it as his afternoon of pleasure to scrape nonchalantly at the rugby ball with his studs while the opposition light a Hamlet and await his box-kick.

His passing, better than Reddan's and even Grand Slam winner Tomas O'Leary's before him, is as swift as required, as those to whom he is familiar from Munster duty and indeed early Ireland bows can attest.

However, as we have also seen on Munster duty at times in the early parts of this season, there is little compensatory relief available when one has to go burying one's head at ruck time with a pick and a shovel.

That has been Murray's lot in both opening halves of Ireland's championship games so far, with a baffling lack of intensity from his forwards impinging his ability to develop the game for his impatient out-half and his explosive back-line as quickly as he would like.

If neither Jamie Heaslip nor Sean O'Brien are busting defences open in the manner in which both players managed to do a season or so ago, then how can Murray possibly hope to achieve the so-called 'high tempo' beloved of his critics? The other ball-carriers amongst the piano shifters are not blameless either.

According to some observers, Reddan's arrival coincided with an accelerating pace that was never possible while Murray was on sentry duty at the bottom of the ruck. However, this ignores the fact that the Italians had, as their captain confessed, folded their tents and started hitching for home.

Far easier to have a springy scrum-half zipping hither and thither when the opposition have turned from concrete to cardboard.

Murray is not without his faults. Against Wales, he too often indulged in a battle of machismo with his opposite number Mike Phillips, further hindering his nascent partnership with Sexton.

Admittedly, Some of his box-kicking has been poor but he has been left little option by poorly aligned strike runners and a surfeit of slow ball -- particularly at the beginning of games.

There is no reason to suggest that another scrum-half would cope much better in such circumstances.

If Ireland can start the game better, as Rob Kearney observed in yesterday's press conference as he reflected on previous dismal days in Paris, then Murray can indirectly profit.

The emerging signs of a more coherent system, whether in terms of clearing their lines from deep or attacking in the opposition half, can help Murray but the Munster scrum-half can also help himself.

If he concentrates on his game, ignoring confused instructions from above to over-engage physically with the pillar defenders - even if France's fringe defence seemed alarmingly brittle against Scotland - then he can shine.

Murray, whose defence outshines all other candidates, should concentrate on maximising his own strengths, as he did in the build-up to the opening Keith Earls try, not the perceived weaknesses of the opposition.

Belfast Telegraph


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