Pressure on Murray as Wales come to town

4 min

Dublin (AFP)

Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar will be battling for their jobs on Saturday, one on the field against Wales and the other at the polls in a general election.

Murray will line up alongside Johnny Sexton for the 58th time in an Irish jersey.

They passed Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer's record of 55 as a half-back pairing in the loss to New Zealand in the World Cup quarter-finals.

However, the calls are increasing for Ulster's John Cooney to be given a start.

Murray was a pivotal figure in Ireland's 2018 Grand Slam and their historic 2016 victory over then world champions New Zealand in Chicago. But his less impressive form when he returned from a neck injury last year coincided with a dip in the national side's fortunes.

At 30 he is only a year older than Cooney, who has taken a circuitous route to Ulster having started with Leinster and then moved to unfashionable Connacht.

Coach Andy Farrell stuck with Murray for the Wales game after a solid performance in the hour he played in the edgy 19-12 opening win over Scotland. Cooney coped well for the final quarter of the match.

Murray and Cooney were rolled out together to meet the media earlier this week and the former said the rivalry was being exaggerated.

"No. You make it awkward," the Munster player told reporters.

"You be yourself. You don't have to try to create animosity. You get along, and try as hard as you can.

"We've had it for quite a while. You can continue to build it up."

Cooney says the rivalry is productive.

"If you're trying to improve yourself personally and we're putting pressure on each other, he's going to improve himself personally," said Cooney.

Wales arrive as Grand Slam holders and World Cup semi-finalists and are unlikely to be as profligate with chances as the Scots were last Saturday.

Ireland have suffered just two Six Nations blips at Lansdowne Road in the past five tournaments. They suffered their only home loss in that time to England last year and drew 16-16 with the Welsh in 2016.

Nevertheless, former Ireland centre Gordon D'Arcy believes Farrell should have been bold and started Cooney.

"I've never been inclined to join the chorus," the 39-year-old capped 82 times wrote in The Irish Times.

"However, Conor Murray is not exuding confidence at the moment and this was reflected in the Ireland performance against Scotland."

- 'A marked man' -

D'Arcy, who for many years formed a dynamic centre partnership with icon Brian O'Driscoll both for Leinster and Ireland, said Murray's style was too static. He called for Cooney and another man named to the bench, Leinster flanker Max Deegan.

"Murray's stalling at rucks is similar to how he plays for Munster," he wrote.

"They don't play at a fast pace, which is fine, unlike Leinster and Ulster.

"The pertinent question is which way do Ireland want to play?

"I believe it needs to be at a quicker pace.

"Farrell has clearly edged towards the players he knows best.

"It's a pity because John Cooney and Max Deegan are the way forward right now."

Sexton, though, stands squarely behind Murray.

"The biggest problem for Conor is having ripped up the All Blacks then you become a marked man," said Sexton.

"He has played really well against Ospreys and last week and I am sure he will play well on Saturday."

Meanwhile, Saracens centre Nick Tompkins will make his first Wales start on Saturday, in the only change to Wayne Pivac's line-up.

Tompkins, who made a try-scoring debut from the bench in Saturday's 42-0 mauling of Italy, will line up at outside centre, with George North moving to the wing for the clash in Dublin.

Tompkins said life with Wales was "a nice distraction" following events at crisis-hit Saracens, who will be relegated from the English Premiership at the end of the season after salary cap breaches.

The 24-year-old, who is Welsh-qualified through his grandmother, played for England Under-20s but said there was no contact from England coach Eddie Jones.

"I just had contact with Wayne," he said. "He called me, and I was more than happy to meet him and get the opportunity. I couldn't have accepted it quick enough.