Ireland suffer huge blow as Conor Murray is ruled out of England Six Nations finale

Gavin Mairs
The Telegraph
Conor Murray suffered the injury against Wales last week - Copyright (c) 2017 Rex Features. No use without permission.
Conor Murray suffered the injury against Wales last week - Copyright (c) 2017 Rex Features. No use without permission.

If there was not a mood of despondency in the Ireland camp on Thursday, there was little sign of chest-beating either as Joe Schmidt resigned himself to being without two of his key player-makers, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney, for the visit of Grand Slam-seeking England.

Murray’s absence because of a shoulder is the more acute loss, given that the Munster scrum-half has been the outstanding player for Ireland this season, while his replacement Kieran Marmarion, is inexperienced and lacks a kicking game to take the pressure of his fly-half partner Jonathan Sexton.

Kearney, who has shown glimpses of his best form this championship, was ruled out with knee injury, although his withdrawal is tempered by the return of Jared Payne, who is fit again having recovered from kidney injury that sidelined him for three months.

The other change to the starting line-up that lost to Wales, a defeat which ended their championship title hopes, was a tactical decision, with Ulster’s powerhouse lock preferred to Devin Toner, who surprisingly gave way given his line-out prowess.

For all the talk of Ireland’s playing for second place in the championship, a finish that would guarantee Schmidt’s side a top-seeding for the World Cup draw in May, the injury-enforced changes left a sense that the atmosphere in the camp doing into what had been billed before the start of the Six Nations as a championship decider was tinged with regret.

Ireland team: J Payne (Ulster), K Earls (Munster), G Ringrose, R Henshaw (both Leinster), S Zebo (Munster), J Sexton (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), T Furlong (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), I Henderson (Ulster), CJ Stander (Munster), S O'Brien, J Heaslip (both Leinster).

Replacements: N Scannell (Munster), C Healy (Leinster), J Ryan (Munster), D Toner (Leinster), P O'Mahony (Munster), L McGrath (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), A Conway (Munster).

Schmidt’s mood can not have been helped as the England team confirmed that Eddie Jones’s side had been boosted by the return of Billy Vunipola and Anthony Watson – two of his outstanding performers last year - after their respective injury woes.

“Probably a frustration for us is they are getting guys back and we’re bleeding a few guys that offer that experience and real quality particularly in Conor,” admitted Schmidt. “The depth of what they have got is formidable. And across the park it is really hard to see where the weaknesses lie.

“I don’t think they are intimidated going somewhere else. I don’t think that puts them off their stride at all and I think they have got such competition for places in their own team that they have to be kept up to their work.

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“How does a guy like Jack Nowell miss out this week and Jonny May not even get a look in? They are guys there who would probably be in a lot of international teams and that is similar to New Zealand.”

It was interesting to see Schmidt spend most of his press conference at Carton House in Maynooth, eulogising about England’s strengths, in sharp contrast to Jones, who normally refusing to engage subjects relating to the opposition.

“They (England) are the big brother,” Schdmit added. “They are the guy you look over your shoulder and you are a little bit envious of. You’re always going to try to get one over your big brother. I think that's a natural personality trait but, at the same time, there's a little bit of angst and anxiety when the big brother is looking over the fence.”

Schmidt also referred twice to Jones’s comment ahead of this fixture about what he perceived to be Ireland’s penchant to kick the ball. It clearly still irks.  

“Personality-wise Eddie and I are different,” Schmidt added. “I think there are some common traits. Eddie works incredibly hard and I know that I do as much as I possibly can.

“I guess some people just go about their business and are inward-looking with their team, certainly outward-looking with their opponents but certainly not as outspoken about it.

“It's pretty hard to fault Eddie because a lot of what he said has been justified by the performances, that have backed up what he's said. Sometime some of the stats come out, for example some of the kicking stats last year, they were thoroughly exaggerated but that's part of the colour I think.

“The enjoyment, the twinkle in the eye that Eddie has when he says those things, I think he's looking for a response and he gets a response from his players, that's for sure, because they've done well for him.”

Yet as much as Schmidt talked up England yesterday, behind the scenes Ireland are burning in their desire to stop England in their bid to set a world record number of Test wins and a second successive Grand Slam.

“I’d like to think that even if we lose a game, the people see that the effort that’s put in, and how much it means to us to play for Ireland, that’d be the same this weekend,” said Sexton.

“Yeah it will be a little bit more special, normally when you turn out for England, the crowd are extra special. I don’t know what the crowd will be like - it could be 50:50 English Irish, the game that’s in it for them. But look we’ll go out and try to make everyone proud, and I think the country does lift itself when we play against England.”


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