'Axel is with us every day. He played such a big part of my career' - Conor Murray
"Don't lose faith; stick together."
It is not often that you get to sit with one of Ireland's best players for 20 minutes and just pick his brains on the game. Conor Murray did not disappoint.
As we walk into the basement room to set up for our interview, Conor Murray is crammed into a blue-lit booth, behind sound-proof glass, chatting to Matt Cooper.
Three days after looking sharp in a Munster win over Cardiff, Murray is up in Dublin in his capacity as PINERGY ambassador.
We are six months from Murray winning a Midol 'Oscar' - the French rugby bible's prestigious award - for world's best player. He was well set for theWorld Rugby accolade, too, until injury ruled him out of the start of this season (and crucial final months of 2018).
The award went to Johnny Sexton, his half-back partner with Ireland, and his side won 'Team of the Year' at the swank award ceremony in Monaco. Ireland looked in good shape but they were undone by England and then Wales, in the Guinness Six Nations, before finishing third.
Murray and Sexton, for so long Ireland's stellar performers, looked below par. With Ireland often being driven back, Murray and Sexton were both exposed to fantastic pressure and were rattled. Both struggled against Wales, but very few Irish players emerged with credit on that day.
Sexton has played six games since Leinster's December 29 loss to Murray's Munster and five of them were in the Six Nations. To my mind he was carrying an injury through most of the tournament and it is no surprise that he missed four Leinster games since that grim day in Cardiff.
Today, though, is an opportunity to cover a good few topics - not all rugby-related - with Murray. To his credit, he does shirk or skirt around a single question.
Many in Ireland were urging Murray and his teammates to go out for a few drinks, mid-championship, and to loosen up. They appeared to be in the grip of performance anxiety that dropped them deeper the more they scrabbled to get out. There were drinks when the championship wrapped, Murray confirmed, and a few of them were with the new Grand Slam champions.
"We had the meal together, after the game, and a couple of pints with the Welsh lads. We congratulated them on what they had done, which was the right thing to do.
"It was us a year previously, at Twickenham, when we delayed the meal a bit before coming up. The Welsh lads were late [to the meal], which is completely fine. You're celebrating a Grand Slam. We did that last year and the English lads were fine with it, had a pint and a chat.
"We did that at the meal then went back to our team room at the hotel and stuck together. Wives and girlfriends, family, parents, all the coaches, and we all had a drink together. That was really important because, it didn't go to plan but it wasn't down to a lack of effort or a lack of desire from players or staff, or anything.
"Everyone saw the effort that was being put in... it's good to have a drink, sign off, and say, 'You know lads, that was a tough campaign but we know how good we can be and we know we can get back to that level'. Don't lose faith; stick together."
Murray briefly leans back on two things Irish fans will have heard a lot in recent weeks - that Ireland have not become a bad team overnight and that they had won 23 from 26 Test matches.
'We know what went wrong'
It is put to Murray that Ireland are not only fighting to rediscover their form but against the weight of expectation of a nation that frets about another World Cup failure.
Much like England's footballers and penalty shoot-outs (before the 2018 World Cup), Ireland's rugby players seem destined to be locked in a cycle where we fear the worst and project that fear on the squad.
"When you ask if we have to cloister ourselves away," he begins, "it's not that that we're trying to stay tight for. It's for our group.
"The tighter we remain... and we're a really tight group. I've said this before in interviews but we're genuinely good mates, between us and all the other provinces. They're the fellas that I spend all the time with outside of rugby. I don't know if that was the case before but I could pick four or five lads from the squad, from Munster, that have really good relationships with the fellas from Ulster, Leinster and Connacht.
"I don't know if that was the case [before] - you'd have to ask the older lads - but it feels really good. It feels like a really tight squad. If we are to remain tight, it's because that's when we work best. When we're away from... the media is there and it's got a really big role but, for us, we don't need to see it that much. We know what works, we know how good we can be and we know how tight we can be.
"We know what went wrong in the Six Nations and we have a fair idea of how we're going to fix it, and what we're going to attempt to do. So it's really important that we stay away from that [media] as much as we can. Because I don't really see the benefit of reading newspapers when things are going well or when things are going poorly. I just don't see the benefit. Sometimes they over-hype you and sometimes they're criticising you for a reason that might be absolutely fair. But, at times, is it too much, is it not? There's a balance."
Murray, then, is similar to former Ireland teammate Jamie Heaslip in steering clear of the media and social media (he has backed away from Twitter of late), but that does not mean some of the chatter does not filter through.
The conversation [full interview from 21:30 below] then moves to two topics that have exercised the minds of many rugby fans for since the turn of the year - the Munster-Leinster flare-ups at Thomond Park and the possibility that Murray is playing with an injury that is affecting his game.
'I feel fine, I feel fine'
Most rugby players would tell you that they rarely line out for a game at 100%, but how close to that figure was Murray, and was the neck injury (first picked up in March 2017) troubling him in the Six Nations?
"Honestly answering," Murray replies, "I was completely fit. I wish I could blame my neck!
"There were a few things that didn't go according to plan but I was... I am fully fit. That's why, going back way before the Six Nations, I took so much time with this neck. To make sure it was right.
"I know Brian [O'Driscoll] has said it before, that you're never really fully fit. You're always going to go into the game with a bang on the elbow, a dead leg or something annoying you. But, in terms of the neck, I was fully fit. If ever anything happened [with it] again, I would wait beyond the date they [the medics] said it would be okay. Even more so, I'd give myself another two or three weeks beyond when people said I could play, to make sure I was comfortable with it.
"People don't see if you're injured. If you have a bad knee or a bad ankle, people don't see that on Saturday. They see you and they expect a certain standard of performance from you.
"No, I wasn't [injured]. As I said, I'd like to blame that but my neck feels great and my arm, strength-wise, is as good as it has ever been. I feel fine, I feel fine."
Murray leans forward when told about some post-match analysis carried out by SportsJOE about his performance against Italy, in February. He was guilty of a couple of stray passes, and constantly harried by Tito Tebaldi, but there was no plunge in form. It was more a case of him battling as best he could while his team struggled to impose themselves on the Italians.
It is here when Murray refers to some media commentary that did get through to him. "There was something from the England game," he says. "I don't know who said it to me; my dad, I think.
"I was like, 'I'm pretty sure most of my passes were good in that game'. I can remember my stats and there were two [missed] passes. One when England kicked the ball over the top and Jordan Larmour was running that way [to his left] and I tried to give it to him, and he wason the move. I probably shouldn't, and it went to ground.
"There might have been one other and, other than that, there was nothing. I can honestly say, I fully believe there was nothing wrong with my passing in that game. It's funny what people perceive to be wrong. It is interesting because, years ago, if someone had mentioned to me something was wrong, like my passing, I would be like, 'Oh, I've got to practice this way more and get it straight'.
"This time around, I honestly don't see the papers and it's only that friends or family might ask, 'Have you seen what this fella wrote?'. I'm like, 'No, I didn't. I don't really want to know what that fella wrote anyway' but they've already told me at that stage.
"So, when I heard that I thought, 'No, I know my passing is absolutely fine'. So it's nothing to worry about. I'm a bit more mature about how I handle those things now. I know I can take comfort from it."
Still, Murray acknowledges that more passes than he would like did not go to hand during the Six Nations. Awareness, miscommunication and teams putting Ireland under pressure all attributed to the team looking off-key.
"The message wasn't as clear," he admits but, as a senior player, he is willing to take his share of the blame.
As for the perceived beef between Leinster and Munster, stemming from that heated game on December 29, Murray is happy to put that theory to bed.
"You can see why people would say that from the outside," he comments, "because that was such a heated game... brilliant.
"Like, if anything that was good for the national team because it showed lads care about their derbies, care about you know, going up against their rivals and firstly showing what it means to play against, for me, to play against Leinster and then you’re trying to get into the national squad.
"That’s another sub-plot to all those inter-pros is lads trying to get in, you know because competition is so high in the Irish team, you know, people want to play as much as they can. They want to be involved in that team as much as they can and I think that just showed it."
"Since that game," Murray adds, "like a couple of days after the lads were all texting each other, the lads involved in the few bits after.
"Well I know I had an incident with Jordan Larmour where I high tackled him and there was a bit of a scuffle in touch. The next time I saw him we were laughing and joking about it.
"We actually both said, 'Jesus that was a bit of fun wasn’t it?'Because there was no nasty digs or anything, it was just, like it was just on the edge type stuff."
'Axel wouldn't want it all down to him'
Conor Murray has looked more like the player we know he can be in the red (and turquoise) of Munster, this season.
That could be, in part, that this Munster team is comfortable in its' skin. There is huge pressure there to win silverware - seven seasons and counting - down in Munster but Johann van Graan and his men know how they want to go about getting there.
As those that live in the province will tell you, the Munster lads travel en masse. They are a close bunch and they enjoy a tradition, on Sundays after big matches, of getting out to the coast for a dip in the cool waters and a spot of lunch together. If the dog needs walking, too, there are miles and miles of beaches and lads will meet up for a natter while the canines romp around.
There is no denying that the passing of their coach, Anthony Foley, has forged a tighter bond within this group. Two and a half years after Foley's tragic death in Paris, that bond exists.
"Yeah, it sounds kind of corny," Murray begins. "Not corny but, Axel, he is with us. He had such a big part of my career and a lot of lads'.
"And, you know, there are pictures of him around the place. It's not like it's everywhere but, like, there is a little desk in the coach's office - their waiting area - with a lot of pictures of Axel in the glass underneath.
"I was out, I was waiting there the other day, and I was just looking at them for a minute and going, 'Jesus'. It just hits you for a second, every now and then. In a harsh way, life goes on and you have so many distractions anyway. But, at certain times, it comes back and you go, 'Woaah'. But he had such a big role in Munster.
"And at the end of training we have a little chat, a little wrap-up thing, '1, 2, 3, Axel!'. That happens every day, pretty much. So, he's always there and there is always a reference to him.
"I think, yeah, it definitely brought us together more but there is a tightness about this group anyway, and Axel wouldn't want it all down to him. He's a big reason behind why a lot of people stayed there or have such a love for Munster."
This, Conor Murray explains, is why he was never going to leave Munster (before he signed his new contract) and why he will stay and play as long as they will have him.
In more ways than one, this is his home.
WATCH THE FULL CONOR MURRAY INTERVIEW HERE: