Ireland honours 'steely strong' Murray

Conor Murray admits he does not "really like the attention" he receives due to his stellar exploits for Ireland and Munster but on Saturday the scrum-half will have to grin and bear it as he leads the team out for his 100th cap.

The 33-year-old will experience the cheers and roars of appreciation of over a decade of service to the Irish team from a capacity crowd of almost 52,000 ahead of a clash with world champions South Africa.

Three Six Nations titles -- the pinnacle being the win over England at Twickenham to clinch the 2018 Grand Slam -- and three British & Irish Lions tours attest to his quality.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell praised him for being "a fantastic bloke" but also "a tough old character" who is "steely strong mentally."

This mental strength was clear from the outset when, aged 22, he came on in the second-half of the 2011 World Cup pool win over Australia.

“There's no point going out on the pitch with your shoulders up around your ears," he said at the time.

That appearance was the spark that lit the fuse in forming a partnership with fly-half Johnny Sexton that became one of the finest and most feared in Test rugby.

Whilst Sexton was to go on to be named world player of the year in 2018, Murray was just one of four northern hemisphere players World Rugby announced in their international XV of the decade in 2020.

It was one of the other four, another Irish rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll, who gave him fair warning about what awaited him back home after the 2011 World Cup.

"Brian O'Driscoll said: 'Enjoy your new‑found fame –- it's different.' I was like: 'What?'," he told The Guardian in 2019.

"When I came home, I understood. People were noticing me and that took a while to get used to. Some people enjoy it but I don't really like the attention."

- 'Enjoy every day' -

Murray has not been seen alongside Sexton in the green jesey that often over the past couple of years as Jamison Gibson-Park has moved past him into the first choice spot.

Saturday will be his first Test start since the victory over Argentina last November -- his Munster team-mate Joey Carbery was fly-half that day.

He gets his chance to put a marker down that the old king still has life in him due to Gibson-Park not having played since his leading role in Ireland's historic series win in New Zealand in July.

"I always back myself," Murray said earlier this month, once again showing that steely mental side.

Nevertheless there has been a decline -- more box-kicking than his sniping runs of old which yielded valuable tries and he has just one in his last 29 Tests -- but the elan of old may yet return boosted by the faith shown in him by Farrell.

For his good friend Sexton -- who reached the 100 cap milestone last year -- it is a much deserved achievement.

"He 100 percent deserves to be in that small group of players," he said on Tuesday.

"What he's achieved in the game, the standards that he's reached, and he's been a fantastic teammate to me, to everyone. He's a very selfless player and will do anything for the team, whatever he’s asked."

Murray, however, who suffered a neck-shoulder injury in 2018 which prompted a more conservative style on his return, has a broader perspective of the "ups and downs", as Farrell put it, of his Test career.

The death of Munster head coach Anthony 'Axel' Foley on the morning of a European Champions Cup match in Paris in October 2016 was a shocking and sobering experience.

Foley -- Munster's 2006 European Cup winning captain -- was found dead in his hotel room aged just 42.

"Death really opens your eyes," Murray told The Guardian in December that year.

"When you lose someone, you go: 'Let's really take life for what it is and enjoy every day'."

pi/bsp