At one point during the second-half on Saturday’s clash between England and Ireland, TV cameras zoomed in on Conor Murray with flakes of snow falling on Twickenham.
There were around 82,000 spectators at the stadium in Greater London and yet the Munsterman must have felt like the loneliest figure on the field as he enjoyed a rare break from a game that was played at an incredibly high tempo.
The scrum-half is the tipping point between winning and losing for coach Joe Schmidt’s strategic vision and he is Ireland’s most important player alongside Johnny Sexton.
In a successful Grand Slam campaign, Murray made everything tick for Schmidt’s side; from his box kicking, crisp passing, decision making and to the way he marshalled his pack around ruck time.
In the post-Brian O’Driscoll era, Ireland are still searching for on-field leadership and Murray has shown he can fill some of that void with his unselfish decision-making and ability to act as a ninth forward with his physicality and voracious work rate ensuring team-mates follow his lead.
His ability to snipe is invaluable, touching down for a superb try against Italy and Scotland in round two and four, as well as initiating breaks that led to scoring chances during other matches.
Against the Scots earlier this month, he produced another sterling display and was the beating heart of Ireland’s display. He showed why he was the first choice for the Lions on the last two tours with superb speed and game management. Whenever he is in possession Ireland are in safe hands.
With 13 tries in 63 tests, Murray is fast cementing his status as the best number nine in the world. New Zealand’s Aaron Smith is considered the marquee scrum-half but has levelled off at a time when his Irish counterpart has started to show his ultimate class on the grand stage.
Aside from his intelligent running and passing, the 28-year-old’s ability to step into the kicking duties also illustrates another weapon in his arsenal.
When Jonny Sexton limped off injured against Wales, Murray stepped up to hammer over a late kick to make it a two-score game. Against England, he slotted over a penalty early in the second half to prevent any form of fightback from Eddie Jones’ side.
He keeps teams guessing at every opportunity and is a model of consistency to the players around him.
A lot of this is down to the experience of playing big games and the trust Schmidt has instilled in him during many heavy defeats through the years. During the 2014 Six Nations, he was criticised for his slow distribution to Sexton, but hard work on his passing speed has seen Murray evolve into Ireland’s most important player.
On Saturday, Murray’s ability to produce magic from any attack was a constant source of inspiration. He was the perfect link between forwards and backs and exactly what Schmidt needs to keep the pressure on such heavyweight opposition.
The historic victory at Twickenham has certainly bolstered confidence and morale, but the focus immediately shifts to the summer tours to Australia in June where Ireland will be bidding to close the gap with the All Blacks.
The Limerick native turns 29 in April. And with three Tests in Australia this summer, a tilt with the All Blacks in November and then a Rugby World Cup to look forward in 2019, he has the chance to earn the title of the best scrum-half of this era.
Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure: Murray will be at the centre of everything for the Men in Green.