Conor Murray has spoken publicly for the first time about speculation over his long-term absence from rugby union, labelling allegations of failed drugs tests “crazy” and “hurtful”.
The Ireland scrum-half did not play a minute of rugby this season until 25 November after suffering from a mysterious neck injury, which both he and his club Munster elected to keep the details of private throughout his recovery.
Murray sat out more than five months before returning in the Pro14 victory over Zebre, but he did so amid speculation on social media over conspiracy theories behind his absence, which included the possibility that he was serving a ban for alleged failed drugs tests despite there being no evidence to suggest this was the case.
The 29-year-old addressed these accusations on Wednesday when he appeared at Sarsfield Barracks to give a talk to Limerick’s Defence Forces, in which he was asked a question about dealing with being in the public eye during his length lay-off.
“The toughest part of this was the outside rumours that my friends and family would hear,” Murray said, adding that the social media accusations had been “difficult”.
“Crazy stuff that I’d failed all sorts of drugs tests and they were just keeping it under wraps and letting me serve my ban. That kind of hurt a little bit.
“They were guessing what was wrong, and think I’m going to have to retire. It’s not nice hearing it for yourself, but then your family don’t really know either. They are seeing second hand information. It’s quite tough.”
Having returned to the Munster starting line-up and regained his place in the No 9 shirt, Murray looks poised to be reunited with Johnny Sexton in the Ireland team for the opening Six Nations encounter against England on 2 February, providing he comes through their final European Heineken Champions Cup game against Gloucester this Friday and Exeter Chiefs next weekend.
Ireland will of course be looking to become the first team to win consecutive Grand Slams in the Six Nations era after last season’s triumph – something that along with a first series win in Australia and autumn international victory over New Zealand saw them crowned World Rugby Team of the Year – but Murray explained how the hard times during the first half of the season were only made easier by his teammates, who used the speculation over his lay-off to joke with him and lift his spirits.
“It was the unity of my team,” Murray added. “Munster would hear the same rumours and on Monday morning, they’d be slagging me about it, and make light of it straight away. Having a good team around you and a good head space is really important. It helps me.
“You hear a lot of players saying they don’t read the media or look at Twitter, but you can’t avoid it. If you don’t see it on your phone, your friends will say it back to you and it will affect you somehow.”
Murray will start Friday night’s Champions Cup trip to Kingsholm as he returns to the line-up in one of six changes, with Mike Haley and Rory Scannell coming into the back line at full-back and inside centre respectively and props Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer restored to the front-row, with CJ Stander named at No 8.
Gloucester meanwhile welcome back Danny Cipriani two weeks ahead of schedule as he returns early from a pectoral injury, having sat out the last month that has coincided with four straight defeats. Olly Thorley also returns on the left wing after being injured in the warm-up ahead of last weekend’s defeat by Leicester Tigers, with four changes in the pack as hooker Henry Walker, lock Ed Slater and back-rows Franco Mostert and Lewis Ludlow all return to the starting line-up.
Gloucester: Tom Hudson; Charlie Sharples, Billy Twelvetrees, Mark Atkinson, Ollie Thorley; Danny Cipriani, Callum Braley; Josh Hohneck, Henry Walker, Fraser Balmain; Ed Slater, Gerbrandt Grobler; Franco Mostert, Lewis Ludlow, Ben Morgan.
Replacements: Franco Marais, Alex Seville, Ciaran Knight, Freddie Clarke, Gareth Evans, Ben Vellacott, Owen Williams, Henry Trinder
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Jeremy Loughman, John Ryan, Billy Holland, Arno Botha, Alby Mathewson, Tyler Bleyendaal, Dan Goggin.
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