Coming back into the starting XV to face South Africa, Murray joins a select band of players to have reached the century mark for Ireland – Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Rory Best, Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, Jonathan Sexton and John Hayes.
Considering players of the calibre of Peter Stringer, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney have fallen short of the milestone, it shows the high standards the Limerick man continues to hit in an international career that has spanned 11 years.
“I’m in awe of these people,” admitted Farrell. “It’s pretty special because we all know, through a career, to be able to get to that type of milestone of what it really does take.
“I suppose when you’re a coach or when you’re a player, you see all the ups and downs and you see the pressures that come in from all sorts of different directions.
“You see everyone wants to move onto what they perceive to be the next best thing. I just think somebody who stands up to be counted time and time again, to get to a point like that, I’m in awe of it.
“The hardest thing is to stay at the top. Of course there’s ups and downs, but Conor’s a legend of Irish rugby, everyone knows that, and the abilities that he’s shown through the years are second to none.”
A debutant against France in a 2011 Rugby World Cup warm-up match, Murray made the number 9 jersey his own for a prolonged period, setting a new Irish record of 64 starts together at half-back with current captain Sexton.
During the Farrell era, he has taken on a cameo role given Jamison Gibson-Park’s excellent form, but the latter’s recent injury lay-off has opened the door for the 33-year-old’s first start for Ireland in a year.
The pair have dovetailed and worked very well in tandem in what is ‘a respectful, competitive battle’ for the number 9 shirt, according to Farrell. It is exactly why Murray is held in such high regard by players and coaches alike.
“The biggest compliment that I could give Conor is that he is a top, top class bloke. I don’t know anyone who’s got a bad word to say about him,” insisted the Wigan native, who first coached him during the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour.
We’re all obsessed with rugby, but I suppose when it comes down to how he’s managed himself throughout his career – there’s some bigger things along the way as well – amongst his peers, which really matters to Conor, he is classed as a fantastic human being.
“He’s a tough old character, Conor. He’s steely strong, mentally. He cares a lot about his own game. He gets a chance now to show us how he wants to push forward.”
Like Gibson-Park, full-back Hugo Keenan has been injured for the first few weeks of Leinster’s season. He has since recovered from knee and abdominal issues and returns to man the back-field against the Springboks.
Farrell is confident that Keenan can deliver a big performance despite his lack of recent game-time, and it will be needed given how crucial the kicking and aerial battles will be.
“When you talk about someone like Hugo, we could talk all day about him really. He’s the fittest in the team, we’ll start there.
“He’s probably the most diligent in the team as well as far as his work and the confidence that that gives – not just getting across his own work, but everyone else’s work – to the group in that regard.
“Some people can hit the ground running and be very good, some people take three or four weeks to be able to do that. We believe Hugo is in a good space to be able to perform on Saturday.”
It has been quite a balancing act for Farrell this week in terms of overseeing preparations for two big encounters with southern hemisphere opposition – the Ireland ‘A’ team take on the All Blacks XV on Friday night before Saturday’s main event.
He would have it no other way, though, as testing weeks like this will give Ireland the best possible shot at delivering on their potential at next year’s Rugby World Cup and beyond.
“It’s brilliant. I love coaching, I love rugby, I love the players, I love the environment. So, there’s nothing better than having 50 lads that are not just galvanising together and wanting each other to do so well, but competing, like I’ve said, all week.
“The responsibility on Friday night is for those young lads not just to perform, but to show the rest of the group what they’ve learned and what they’ve picked up during the week. That they’re able to apply it under pressure.
“I’ve no doubt lads, whether they’re going to the ground (at the RDS) or staying at the hotel, I’m sure that’s going to inspire them. It certainly would me.
“Sat there before a game watching your team-mates who you’ve trained with all week, that would certainly inspire me to want to put the boots on on Saturday morning.”
The inclusion of Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey on the bench is a notable one, given the physical and game-breaking impact he could make against the Springboks. He has six Ireland caps, the last one coming against the USA in July of last year.
The sight of McCloskey, during the URC’s opening round against Connacht, taking out two defenders and brilliantly offloading for Luke Marshall to score gave another glimpse of what he is capable of.
The Bangor man helped Ireland to victory against the Māori All Blacks in July, and he has a clear aim now to stay in Farrell’s thoughts with a possible run as a replacement this weekend and further involvement against Fiji.
“He’s a game player, Stuart. He’s one that over the last few years, it’s been tough for him. It’s certainly be tough enough for me as well because I think Stu’s a great player, a great talent,” acknowledged the Ireland boss.
That position, as we know, has been strongly contested. They’re great together (the centres). To be able to see Stu strive in the environment and send him home every Wednesday has been tough for him to take.
“But his performances have never wavered. In fact his hunger has got stronger. The start of the season has been very bright for him, so I’m pleased for him to get the opportunity to show what he’s about on Saturday.
“You just want him to be himself. He plays really strong and he’s got a chance now to show his team-mates that he’s the real deal as far as the big time is concerned – push on and perform really well and give us a massive headache come the Six Nations.”
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Sexton ‘Very Proud’ Of Record, But Win Was More Important
Head coach Andy Farrell said it was ‘so fitting’ that Jonathan Sexton broke Ronan O’Gara’s record with a memorable try under the posts to become Ireland’s all-time top points scorer.
O’Gara (1083 points) leapfrogged David Humphreys (560) at the top of the scoring charts back in February 2006, and now the mantle has passed to another talismanic number 10. Sexton’s try and 11 points from the tee against Tonga took his career haul for Ireland to 1090.
Adding in his 2013 try for the British & Irish Lions against Australia, he has moved above Welsh legend Neil Jenkins into fourth place on the list of highest scorers in international rugby history.
Sexton claimed the Irish record in style with a cleverly-worked 37th-minute score that secured Ireland’s second bonus point of this Rugby World Cup. The rush of his team-mates to congratulate and engulf him behind the posts spoke volumes.
“I was just happy to score the try,” admitted the Ireland captain, modest as ever. “I think one of the lads said it to me (about breaking the record) under the posts. I actually thought I might have got it on the kick before.
Look, it’s something when you retire you can look back on and be very proud of. I think my little boy (Luca) will be over the moon. He was talking about it during the week.
“It probably means more to him! He’ll chase it down now, and so will the other 10s. It’s there to be broken now and I’m sure some young guys will be eyeing it up.
“I’m very proud to do it, but tonight it was more important getting the win and moving on to what is such a massive game (against South Africa) this coming week.”
Sexton has started France 2023 in impressive form despite his lack of recent game-time. He has racked up three tries and 40 points in all across the first two rounds, with only England’s George Ford (41) ahead of him.
The St. Mary’s College clubman has already topped his tallies from previous World Cups – 21 points in 2011, 31 points in 2015, and 26 points in 2019 – but is acutely aware that scoring opportunities will be much more difficult to come by against the Springboks.
Asked about the minutes he had gotten under his belt and the drive to get back to peak form, he admitted: “The proof will be next Saturday if I’m in good form. You’ve got to go do it in the games. There’s no point saying you’re feeling good or whatever.
“I just take it day by day, make sure I recover well, turn up to training Monday, Tuesday, and try and help put the plan in place to take on South Africa.
“They’ve hit a great vein of form and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us, but one that we are really excited about. Hopefully we’ll be ready for it.”
The fine-tuning of the Irish lineout had the desired effect with 21 wins and just two losses on their own throw. They also stole two of their opponents’ throws, while the scrum was also rock solid against a mammoth Tongan front row.
The pack put in a big collective shift, particularly Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier, who both played the full 80 minutes, and Peter O’Mahony (75) and Tadhg Furlong (71) were not far behind. Having been replaced, tighthead Furlong had to return to the pitch due to Finlay Bealham’s HIA.
Sexton played the first half in Nantes before Ross Byrne came on at out-half for his first World Cup appearance. The Ireland skipper praised the forwards for ensuring that ‘the lineout was excellent, the scrum as well’.
“We got a lot of territory and field position from the set piece. The forwards laid the platform and we got a couple of nice tries in both halves off first or second phase. Very pleased with that.”
It has been a real positive to see the Irish attack put away a good chunk of their chances, whether it is through Mack Hansen’s brilliant sidestep and burst of pace, or that lung-busting support run from Beirne that saw him score right at the death against Romania.
Bundee Aki (4 tries), Beirne and Sexton (3 each) have been regular try scorers, with the latter saying: “We’ve trained incredibly hard all summer, so we’re fit enough and able to get ourselves into positions to score tries and to put the opposition under pressure.
“We’ve done that well at times over the first two weeks. There was plenty of stuff that we’ll look back on early in the game where we’re going to need to be more accurate and clinical next week.”
Meanwhile, Farrell (pictured above with Tonga’s Chris Boyd) was pleased with how his side turned their pressure into points on a humid night. They went past the half-century mark with four tries during the closing 22 minutes.
They also got four more World Cup debutants (Byrne, Bealham, Ryan Baird and Craig Casey) on the pitch, and Dave Kilcoyne and Robbie Henshaw both returned from injury.
Farrell says they are ‘building nicely’ on the back of their eight-try display in Nantes, benefitting from ‘getting a little bit of continuity, getting more game-time, getting the job done and getting people off at the right time’.
He was delighted to see Sexton add another milestone achievement to his collection. Apart from his scoring prowess, he says the thing that stands out about his captain is ‘how he makes people feel and how he leads the team, and he’s one of the best in the world at that’.
Speaking about the try which saw the Dubliner break O’Gara’s longstanding record, the Wigan man commented: “He’d nine points and equalled the record before he scored the try, hadn’t he? You just knew when we got held up, and we were set to play that play. It’s something that we’d obviously practised during the week.
“He knows which ones to follow! He followed Conor (Murray) really well, and it’s so fitting that he broke the record with a try like that.
“The record’s fantastic but he’d say that’s his job. But it takes some doing. To us, as a leader and as a player, he’s a lot more than a points-scoring machine.
“How he prepares his team and gets them up for absolutely every game selflessly is more important to, I would think, him and certainly to us.”
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‘We’ve Plenty Of Areas To Improve’ – O’Mahony
In winning their Pool B opener 82-8 against Romania, Ireland became the first team to score over 80 points in a Rugby World Cup match since Wales did so against Namibia back in 2011.
It was Ireland’s largest ever World Cup victory and the most points, tries (12), metres made (1091) and offloads (27) they have amassed in a match in the tournament’s history.
Captain Jonathan Sexton, who claimed a handful of records himself on the day, and Jack Crowley tallied up 11 conversions between them, setting a new Irish record in Test rugby.
However, there was some frustration with defensive lapses and attacks that broke down, especially off their usually reliable lineout platform. O’Mahony expects to see a return to form in that area this weekend.
“I think the main thing is to improve, get better,” he said, when asked about the team’s goals for round two. “There was plenty of stuff we were obviously happy with last week, but there was probably more that we weren’t happy with.
“Discipline certainly, penalties given away. We had Romania under pressure at times, but let them out easily with some quite silly discipline.
“I think some of our accuracy wasn’t where it could have been at times. Some fairly basic errors from ourselves that we would have expected much higher standards from.
“Set-piece wise, I think some of the moments where we got into their 22 where our lineout didn’t function. So, as I said, we’ve plenty of areas to improve on this week.”
Having ended last season with Six Nations and United Rugby Championship medals in his back pocket, O’Mahony has come into his third World Cup campaign in fine fettle despite missing some pre-season windows through injury.
The Romania game saw him score his fourth and fifth Test tries, adding to previous efforts against Samoa (2013), Russia (2019) and Italy (2022), as he made his first international start at openside flanker since the December 2020 win over Scotland.
In addition to his two tries and usual solidity in defence against the Oaks, the Corkman made a line break and more passes (13) than any other forward – during the World Cup’s opening round – except Italy’s Michele Lamaro (14).
Backing up for the Tonga clash as he reverts to his usual blindside berth, he admitted: “I certainly feel good. We’ve done a lot of training in heat and tough conditions. Everywhere we’ve gone, I said this last week, Portugal, Biarritz, being over here it’s been extremely hot and even back home was quite warm.
“A lot of that has stood to us fitness wise. It’s funny, we haven’t done a huge amount of out-and-out fitness work per se, kind of the old-school fitness term of just running and running. We’ve done loads and loads of rugby, and I think from a team perspective we’re quite rugby fit.
“I think last week will stand to people who played big chunks of that game or came off the bench, even who trained last week, the guys who put a big week in. It’s another big chunk in our fitness bank and (we’re) certainly feeling good.”
Tonga’s starting back row features the Scarlets’ Vaea Fifita, the former All Black, and Tanginoa Halaifonua and Sione Talitui fill the flanker roles. Big Bordeaux-based prop Ben Tameifuna leads the team as regular captain Sonatane Takulua starts on the bench.
O’Mahony’s recent Munster team-mate, Malakai Fekitoa, is a familiar face as is his centre partner Pita Ahki and full-back Salesi Piutau, who previously played for Connacht and Ulster respectively. Lock Leva Fifita left Connacht in the summer after two seasons.
With scrum half Augustine Pulu the fourth ex-All Black in Tonga’s starting XV, head coach Toutai Kefu commented: “(The former New Zealand players) have had a massive input already, both on and off the field.
“The biggest difference is off-the-field stuff – mindset, professionalism, a really good attitude, so that’s been refreshing and the younger players have observed that. They’ve raised the level of standard and expectation of all the players.
“We’re expecting to execute really well, execute our game-plan. Ireland are a very professional team, a very cohesive team. But we think there are some spots there we can identify and take advantage of.”
Having been a late addition to Ireland’s bench last week due to Robbie Henshaw’s injury, Connacht winger Mack Hansen will make his first World Cup start against Tonga. He has scored seven tries in 17 Tests, with six of them coming in the last year.
It has been a rapid rise for Hansen since his arrival in Galway just over two years ago, and his thorough professionalism on the pitch, mixed with his fun-loving personality off it, make him an ideal player to tour with, according to O’Mahony.
“Mack’s been a breath of fresh air. Obviously an incredible character. Good person, we talk about it a lot, the squad that we have and how important it is to fit in,” said the Munster captain, who was joined by Hansen at Thursday’s press conference.
Certainly you knew straight away he was a top man. As I said, a character but overall he’s an incredible athlete and one of the world’s best wingers at the moment, which is a great addition to have to the squad.
“The overriding factor is that he’s a good person and he’s seamlessly fitted into our squad like everyone else has. He’s great craic and you need characters like that. The beauty of the game of rugby is the different characters that you get, and we’d be lost without guys like Mack.
“Tours like this are made for being incredibly serious, obviously (it’s) our jobs and everything that goes with it. But the craic that fellas like this bring make it a great place to be.”
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‘The Travelling Support Is Incredible’ – Herring
Ireland ended the opening weekend of Rugby World Cup 2023 exactly where they want to be – sitting at the top of Pool B with five points and a very healthy points difference of +74.
They had some setbacks along the way, with Robbie Henshaw’s pre-match withdrawal for a hamstring issue followed by Gabriel Rupanu’s early try for Romania, but Andy Farrell’s men went on to score seven unanswered second-half tries.
Having missed out on squad selection for both England 2015 and Japan 2019, it was a special moment for hooker Rob Herring to mark his World Cup debut with a try from a five-metre tap penalty.
Speaking after the 82-8 bonus point win in the baking Bordeaux heat, he said: “It was a good start to the tournament, certainly a lot more to come. We can build from this performance.
“We obviously had a few things that we would like to fix, some losses of possession and stuff like that. But I thought the second half was really good.
“We scored some really good tries, so it was a good team performance all round. Tonga next Saturday is going to be a good challenge for us and we’re looking forward to it already.”
The Rugby World Cup performance analysis statistics from the first round showed that Ireland had the quickest ruck speed of all the teams, at just 2.17 seconds, while they also made the most metres (1091), line breaks (21), and offloads (23), and had the highest gain-line success rate of 67%.
What will grate for Herring and the rest of the forwards is that they lost four of their 12 lineouts, with the Romanians coming up with two steals. On the negative side too for Ireland were 13 bad passes and 17 turnovers conceded.
They have plenty of time to tidy up those areas for their round two tussle with Tonga. The 9pm kick-off time at the Stade de la Beaujoire should create a buzzing atmosphere under the floodlights, and the vocal Ireland fans are sure to make their presence felt.
“After the game when we were doing the lap (of the ground), you can kind of soak in the atmosphere a little bit,” noted Herring, who has scored three tries in his last five Tests.
“The travelling support we have is incredible. You could hear it during the game and they were singing after the game. It just reminded me of when we won the Grand Slam (earlier this year).
“Like we said earlier, we’ve probably got the best travelling support and we certainly heard them out there today.”
Herring’s Ulster front row colleague, Tom O’Toole, also came on to make his World Cup debut. He played the final half an hour against the Romanians, replacing Tadhg Furlong on the tighthead side of the scrum.
The 24-year-old acquitted himself well, doing his bread-and-butter set-piece work as well landing a dominant tackle and showing good hands to put Jeremy Loughman breaking into space.
Coming barely seven months on from his first Six Nations appearance, O’Toole said of his maiden World Cup outing: “First World Cup for myself and a lot of people in this group, there was definitely a bit of nervous energy this morning which is good.
We knew that Romania were going to be a passionate side. Coming into this game there was definitely a bit of excitement. Also a bit of nerves, but I think we handled it well.
“Obviously they scored first which wasn’t ideal early on, but I think we’re really proud of the guys in the group, the way we stayed composed, came back and put a performance in that we were happy with.”
The last of the Ulster players involved against the Oaks was Iain Henderson, the province’s captain. A second half replacement, he appeared in the mixed zone afterwards with a large shiner under his right eye.
Plenty of bumps and bruises were anticipated against a physical Romanian outfit, and with hard-hitting Tonga awaiting in Nantes next weekend, Henderson is ready to play his part, whether that is as a starter or coming off the bench again.
The 31-year-old, who captained the team for last month’s warm-up wins over Italy and Samoa, commented: “This is a brilliant squad to be part of. The staff have their plans sorted, and it was great this week training and prepping the starters as best as possible.
“So, look, whatever Paulie (O’Connell) and ‘Faz’ decide to go with, I’ll be right behind to make sure we are able to put the best performance in.
“At the same time, like I definitely want to be starting. But I’m ready for whatever happens and if it’s decided that I’m not playing, I’m still going to bring the best version of myself to training and make sure the guys that do start, or come off the bench or whatever, have the best prep so that we can hopefully get a good performance like we did, or we can do next week.”
Playing at his third World Cup, Henderson’s experience and leadership skills are a big asset to an Irish pack that started the tournament with nine World Cup newcomers. They include hooker Dan Sheehan who is coming back from a foot injury.
Mindful that there are tougher tests to come, Henderson added: “Romania got off to a flying start but I thought the guys who were on in the first half did an unbelievable job of just staying level-headed and moving on to the next task.
“After that we just kept the pressure on and took the opportunities when they were there, but probably left a few out there as well.”
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