DUBLIN – New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen believes Ireland's star scrum-half Conor Murray will play in next Saturday's clash of the top two-ranked teams in the world despite not having played any rugby this season.
Murray, who has formed a world class half-back partnership with Jonathan Sexton, is due to speak with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and tell him whether he is up to the formidable task of playing the world champions.
Murray, recently returned to training after recovering from a neck injury, has proved to be a thorn in the All Blacks side in recent years with two victories - Ireland's historic win in Chicago in 2016 and for the British & Irish Lions last year - and a draw on the last five occasions he has faced them.
"I'm assuming Conor Murray will play, they have a good spine," said Hansen at a press conference at the team hotel on arriving in Dublin. "He and Sexton are two of the best players in the world, so they'll drive them around the park good."
Hansen, who said he expected centre Sonny Bill Williams to be fit despite going off during the 16-15 win over England on Saturday, said if it was one of his squad they would definitely be up for playing.
"I'm not saying that to stir any trouble," said Hansen referring to his belief Murray would play. "But he’s a real competitor. He'll want to play. If he's got a chance I think he'll play. If it was one of our guys in the same boat I'd say he be putting his hand up."
Hansen said that depriving Murray of ball by dominating in the scrum is imperative otherwise he will be free to pull the strings and run riot.
Plenty of character
In his absence, both Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion have performed well as starters against Italy (54-7) and Argentina (28-17) respectively, but Murray for the moment belongs in a different class.
“I don't know that he did the damage (in Ireland's victory in Chicago)," said Hansen. "I think the guys up front did the damage and that was what allowed him and Sexton to play.
"The difference is he's a pretty handy player, so if he gets that opportunity he's going to dominate you."
Hansen, who arrived for the November Tests in the northern hemisphere on the back of another Rugby Championship triumph, says the defeat in Chicago has not left any lasting damage.
"Have we been scarred? I don’t think so," said the 59-year-old. "We've been beaten by plenty of people. "It's the ability to bounce back which makes you a good rugby side. We saw a bit of that character yesterday (Saturday), going down 15-0 and then coming back.
"So there's plenty of character in the All Black jersey. And I'd say there's plenty in the Irish jersey too at the moment."
Hansen says Saturday's match will be like a World Cup play-off.
"Well, it's one and two so whoever wins will be the best team in the world, regardless of rankings, that's what people will take out of it," he said.
"It will be a goodie."
Agence France-Presse (AFP)