Murray back in form at the right time

Scrum-half suffered a worrying dip in form early in the season, but he returned to his brilliant best against Scotland and now has Japan in his sights.

SHIZUOKA, 26 Sep - It was no coincidence that Ireland's compelling performance against Scotland in Yokohama coincided with the resurgence of one of their truly world-class players - scrum-half Conor Murray.

Ten months ago, when the All Blacks were beaten in Dublin, there were plenty who had the Munster man down as the world's best in his position. Murray, above, is a box-kicker of lethal accuracy, a player of instinctive brilliance when at his best. His partnership with fly-half Johnny Sexton helped to propel Ireland to number two in the world rankings.

And then things started to go wrong. England came to Dublin for the first game of the 2019 Six Nations and defeated the Grand Slam champions of the previous year. Murray's kicking and passing in that game were a long way below his best. For the rest of the season, the confident, game-breaking version of Murray appeared only fitfully.

But suddenly, after a towering performance against the Scots, all seems well again.

"You look at your own performance first and foremost and I felt that during the last year I wasn't too far off playing at my best. It's not as if it went drastically wrong," Murray said on Thursday after being named to start against Japan in Shizuoka on Saturday.

"As a nine or a 10, you're going to get the plaudits when things go well and probably a little bit more criticism when things don't go to plan. It's something through my career that I have gotten used to.

"At times I've probably struggled with it, but I'm aware of the way things work. I just focus on trying to get better, on trying to play as well as I know I can, week on week."

The match against the host nation will be the 30-year-old's 11th World Cup appearance.  Murray came from nowhere to become Ireland's starting scrum-half in the 2011 tournament and while the trajectory since has been mostly up, there have been a few difficult patches too.  

Referring to criticism of his form since that England game in February, he said: "I didn't pay too much attention to that. You have people asking you if you're OK and how's your form, but I'd seen that before and I think I know how to deal with it.

"Last week was a nice way to kick off the World Cup. It was a good performance from us. Personally, to get up and running and get into the game, to have a good few contacts and quite a lot of involvements, was nice."

On Saturday, he'll have Connacht's Jack Carty alongside him, with coach Joe Schmidt preferring to allow Sexton more time to recover from a knock picked up against the Scots.

Murray's vast experience contrasts starkly with that of Carty, who makes only his second test start. But Murray, who has been on two tours with the British and Irish Lions, has no concerns about his half-back partner's temperament.

"He's quite a calm character, Jack. He has gotten to grips with the way we play - the tactics and the phase calls and what's expected of him."

The atmosphere on Saturday will "definitely go up a level", he said. "It's going to be really tough out there. They (Japan) play at a frantic pace if you let them and it could be a long day if you're not on top of things."

On last Sunday's evidence, Murray is back on top of his own game. His timing has been exemplary and all of Ireland will hope that there is more to come from him.

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