Despite all the noise Murray still deserves his starting spot

Life isn’t easy for scrum halves. They touch the ball more than anyone else, so much in fact that they can almost blend into the background of a game until they do something that pushes the perception of their overall performance up or down.

Score a try? Up. Fumble the ball at a breakdown? Down. Offload? Up. Fling a hospital pass that gets punished? Down. They might do ninety decent things in a game but one mistake can colour an entire performance negatively, even it wasn’t a critical error. It works the same the other way too, with average enough performances turned into world-beating displays because the scrumhalf happened to score a try.

The reaction to Conor Murray’s performance against Scotland on Saturday and John Cooney’s subsequent cameo off the bench was just straight-up weird to me. I found myself on Twitter having to defend what was a pretty solid Conor Murray performance, nothing outstanding, from accusations that it was “very poor”, “terrible” and “proof that he was finished at test level”.

I mean, it wasn’t the very best that I’d seen Murray play but it was far from poor or even below average. How and what were people seeing? The intercept pass in the aftermath of a line break seemed to be a decisive part of the consensus I saw – the negative moment – but the more I looked back at the game, it became clear that people were seeing what they wanted to see, especially when juxtaposed with John Cooney’s 20-minute cameo.

A lot of it comes down to how you judge a scrum half’s performance. Tries and deep support lines are great but they’re add-ons, for me. I try to judge any scrum half’s performance on the things they do ninety times a game rather than what they might do twice.

When I looked back at Murray’s game on Saturday, he hit most of these markers to a pretty solid degree. His pass quality was good, for the most part, and the few moments of slowness were frontloaded in the early part of the game when the Scottish centre-field resistance and slow down around the ruck was at its strongest.

2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A, Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan 28/9/2019 Japan vs Ireland Ireland’s Conor Murray dejected after the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The intercept was a poor moment of Pass Quality and Pass Decision Making, but it was far from the defining moment of his performance. Murray had one or two poor exits from a distance perspective and one poor contestable that got bailed out by pointless Scottish blocking on Conway, but the majority of his kicks were of a good distance and landed where we’d want them near the 5m channel.

He was incredibly good at buying Scottish penalties at the breakdown with his cadence. It wasn’t his very best but, for a scrumhalf, getting to that level often relies on what happens before you get to the ball – the quality of the carry and clean – and after you let it go. Of Murray’s 90 interactions with the ball – 8 kicks, 78 passes and 4 carries – I’d rate most of them as pretty decent.

Cooney, on the other hand, touched the ball 15 times. His 3 kicks, 11 passes and one carry were of a pretty decent quality too. He had two offensive kicks in the last quarter that gained some nice territory and one in the aftermath of a transition event was particularly nice when he realised the backfield defenders were out of place.

2020 Guinness Six Nations Championship Round 1, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 1/2/2020 Ireland vs Scotland Ireland’s Josh van der Flier and John Cooney with Ali Price of Scotland Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Gary Carr

One of those kicks was pretty average from an accuracy and distance perspective but was made by Conway’s chase. Overall, I thought he was really decent too and added real value when he came on. He’ll certainly get a start at some point in this Six Nations – barring injury or a dramatic week against Wales, he’ll probably start against Italy in Round 4. Then it’ll be on him to show why he should keep the jersey.

The reality is that scrum half is a two-player position these days when you have the right quality starting and finishing. The distance that a scrum half needs to cover at the pace they need to cover it at is a key factor of managing the position across two players and that’s before you factor in the defensive side of the ball.

Will Cooney overtake Murray this Six Nations? It’s certainly possible, but downgrading Murray’s performance artificially to finagle Cooney in by default does a disservice to both players.

Ireland Rugby Press Conference, IRFU High Performance Centre, Sport Ireland Campus, Blanchardstown, Dublin 3/2/2020 John Cooney Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

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