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Ireland’s scrum-half battle is set to be reignited between now and the end of the season. Many thought that Farrell would give a new ball-slinger a chance to nail down the position since his appointment. Instead, he has kept faith in Conor Murray. His back-ups are Luke McGrath and John Cooney. Meanwhile, Kieran Marmion and Jamison Gibson-Park are breathing down their necks.
Murray’s form has been a far cry from his norm in the last eighteen months. As a result, whispers began about whether it was time for a new 9 to step forward. Nonetheless, Murray remained in place for the World Cup and the 6 Nations to date.
Surprisingly, it has been Ulster’s John Cooney who deputised for Murray in the 6 Nations. This is a testament to the scintillating form shown by the 30-year-old prior to the competition. Luke McGrath remains the third choice scrum-half in the squad.
It will be interesting to see how the pecking order has been affected when the 6 Nations resumes in October. Cooney has not been able to continue this form since the restart. In fact, Ulster chose Kiwi Alby Matthewson ahead of him for the Pro14 final against Leinster.
Cooney has not done anything to harm his chances in a green jersey when called upon. But, Farrell will have been watching closely since the restart and Cooney will have to shake away any doubt before long.
In Leinster Luke McGrath has his own competition. Another New Zealander puts the pressure on in the form of Jamison Gibson-Park. Now 28, he qualifies for Ireland and could be an option for Farrell in the Autumn Nations Tournament. Gibson-Park is enjoying his own spell of form and has seen plenty of minutes lately. Yet, it is no secret that Farrell is a fan of the cool head McGrath brings to the game.
The man many fans are crying to see back on the international stage is Connacht’s Kieran Marmion. After being left out of the World Cup Squad last year in place of McGrath, Marmion has had a rough time of it. His form did not justify his omission by any means.
Marmion was the second-choice 9 for Ireland for a long time. When called upon he did his duty and more. For example, he started the 2018 victory against New Zealand in Dublin. Since his debut in 2014, Marmion has racked up 27 caps. At 28 he has a lot left in the tank.
However, watching Ireland jet off to the world cup without him clearly had an effect. Firstly, the rise of Caolin Blade removed his certainty of being Connacht’s first-choice 9. Secondly, a potential move away to Saracens was scuppered by their salary scandal. Then, injury prevented him from proving Farrell wrong before the lockdown.
In the middle of all this, Marmion signed a new 3-year-deal with Connacht. This is a sign of intent. Marmion is here to compete and add to his 27 caps. To illustrate this, the hunger he displayed against Ulster in the first game back was a reminder of his credentials. Thankfully, the lockdown seems to have allowed Marmion to find his drive. If given a chance to impress this November and December, he could put a claim on the jersey.
But, we can’t rule out Conor Murray under any circumstances. There is a reason he has been the undisputed 9 for most of the last decade. His ability to snipe around the breakdown hasn’t been lost to age. Similarly, his understanding of the game and his ability to read a situation is stronger than ever. Currently, the only thing lacking is putting it all together. Farrell clearly trusts Murray. Therefore, the Limerick man will have chances ahead of him to secure the jersey for a while yet.
If form really is temporary, and class is permanent, Murray shouldn’t have anything to worry about in the games to come. But, should he offer as much as a sniff of the green 9, there are a host top-class players in Ireland’s scrum-half battle who will relish the fight.
Current Top Seven Scrum-Halves
(1) Conor Murray
(2) Kiernan Marmion
(3) Jamison Gibson-Park
(4) John Cooney
(5) Caolin Blade
(6) Luke McGrath
(7) Craig Casey
RTÉ and Channel 4 will have free to air coverage of Ireland's matches this November and December as part of the new @autumnnations Cup.
Amazon Prime will have coverage of the tournament in the UK.https://t.co/6AVlHSovzo
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) September 11, 2020