With almost a decade of Test rugby now under his belt, it’s easy to forget just how meteoric Conor Murray’s rise to Test rugby was.
Prior to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Murray made just eight appearances in the Munster run-on side. Incumbent Munster scrumhalf Tomas O’Leary, a key part of Ireland’s 2009 grand slam triumph, struggled with injuries and loss of form while Murray cemented his place in the Munster side through the late winter and spring of 2011.
Ireland took three scrumhalves to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The others – Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss – were both in their 30s and in the twilight of their respective careers, and Murray quickly established himself as Ireland pre-eminent No. 9.
Conor Murray has gone on to become one of the best scrumhalves in the game. He was even named No. 9 in World Rugby’s team of the decade. There have been two Lions tours, a win over the All Blacks in 2016 and a grand slam with Ireland in 2018.
At 188 centimetres tall and weighing 93 kilograms, Murray is one of the biggest scrumhalves in the game, virtually an additional backrower. He has a good passing game, he is a competent tactical kicker, he has an ice-cool temperament and he has good game management.
With 15 tries and 100 points at Test level, Murray also has an eye for the try line and is an accomplished goal kicker also.
Murray turns 32 in April, so it’s possible that the 2021 Lions tour – assuming it goes ahead – will be his swan song. Murray has had his share of injuries and perhaps hasn’t been at his best since the halcyon days of Ireland’s 2018 grand slam.
While there have been plenty of challengers for the Irish No. 9 jersey over the last few years, no one player has managed to wrest it from Murray’s grasp.
John Cooney (Ulster)
30 years old, 11 caps
John Cooney has been in scintillating form for Ulster since his move from Connacht to the northern province in 2017. While at Connacht, Cooney struggled with injury and for game time behind incumbent Kieran Marmion. An excellent passer and a brilliant runner, Cooney is a dynamic scrumhalf who scores freakish tries. He’s a genuine game-changer.
But at 30 Cooney is only one year younger than Murray, so time is likely against him in his quest to be Ireland’s next long term scrumhalf.
Kieran Marmion (Connacht)
28 years old, 28 caps
For many years Marmion has been Murray’s understudy. A player with excellent vision and a good passing game, his career highlight was starting for Ireland in their win over the All Blacks in Dublin in 2018. Marmion turns 29 in February, so, like Cooney, time may not be on his side.
Luke McGrath (Leinster)
27 years old, 19 caps
Luke McGrath has been Leinster’s first-choice scrumhalf throughout the team’s three recent European Rugby Champions Cup wins and long unbeaten run in the Pro14. An intelligent player with a good pass, a perceived lack of X factor has seen Andy Farrell prefer his Leinster teammate and rival Jamison Gibson-Park at Test level.
Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster)
28 years old, five caps
Gibson-Park, one-time understudy to Thomas Perenara at the Hurricanes, is a livewire scrumhalf who has become popular with Leinster fans since his arrival at the club in 2016. To date Gibson-Park has had his struggles at Test level, but Ireland coach Farrell regards him highly and has chosen Gibson-Park in his latest Six Nations Squad. Like Marmion, Gibson-Park turns 29 in February.
So, the question is: who is a genuine long-term contender?
Craig Casey (Munster)
21 years old, 21 Munster appearances
If Conor Murray is one of the biggest scrumhalves in the game, then ironically his Munster understudy, Craig Casey, is one of the smallest, at just 165 centimetres and 76 kilograms. What Casey lacks in size he makes up for with tenacity and a fiercely competitive spirit, akin to Springboks scrumhalf Faf de Klerk. Casey is the best passer in Ireland, is a good game manager and is able to squeeze through the smallest of gaps.
His potential hasn’t escaped the notice of Ireland coach Andy Farrell, who has given Casey the third scrumhalf spot in his Six Nations Squad. He appears to be the real deal.
Caolin Blade (Connacht)
26 years old, 120 Connacht appearances
Caolin Blade has been an instrumental member of the Connacht side since 2014. He is a tenacious and determined scrumhalf with good core skills and an excellent work rate. Though uncapped as yet for Ireland, a Test career is likely as Murray, Marmion, Cooney and Gibson-Park head into their 30s and towards retirement.
Hugh O’Sullivan (Leinster)
22 years old, 25 Leinster appearances
Schoolboy star Hugh O’Sullivan joined the Leinster academy in 2018 with high hopes and expectations. Game time has been limited by the presence of McGrath and Gibson-Park, but O’Sullivan has age on his side and hopefully can get the chance to shine in the Pro14.
Nathan Doak and Lewis Finlay are two players of great promise who have excelled at underage level. Finlay who is in a similar mould to Craig Casey, starred in Ireland’s excellent under-20s side in 2019.
Nathan Doak, 19 years old, is a tall scrumhalf who has already played at Pro14 level for Ulster. At Connacht, No. 9 Stephen Kerins playing for Ireland under-20s in their win over the junior All Blacks in 2016, the first win by an Ireland men’s team over New Zealand. Like O’Sullivan at Leinster, he has had to bide his time behind senior players.
The challenge for the top brains of Irish rugby is an interesting one. A quorum of competent but late-career contenders dominate the pecking order, and this must be a concern for Ireland coach Andy Farrell and his succession plans given it’s unlikely many will be around beyond the next Rugby World Cup.
Currently the only post-2023 Test contender playing regularly at Pro14 level is Craig Casey. It’s apparent that coach Farrell and high performance director David Nucifora need to cultivate pathways to ensure players like Lewis Finlay, Nathan Doak, Hugh O’Sullivan and Stephen Kerins get regular game time at Pro14.
It certainly seems that Craig Casey is the overwhelming favourite to be Murray’s long-term successor, but Ireland needs increased depth in a position where other contenders are long on potential but short on Pro14 experience.