- 04 Feb 21
Ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations 2021 opener against Wales this weekend, we caught up with scrum-half Conor Murray – who discussed life during lockdown with his girlfriend Joanna Cooper and their new cavapoo puppy Kevin; the importance of looking after his headspace during these difficult times; and returning to rugby in a socially-distanced world.
In February 2020, Conor Murray was facing into his ninth Six Nations – blissfully unaware that a newly identified virus was set to put Ireland’s final two matches of the tournament on hold for over eight months. One year on, the scrum-half has found that there’s nothing like a global pandemic, and an upended schedule, to shift your priorities.
“Covid has definitely been tough,” he reflects now. “But at the same time, it’s been a nice time to have a proper look at my perspective – to see what’s important, and what things really matter. I definitely have a different view on things. It’s been a bit of a reset button for me. I’ve been thinking about the things I’ve been prioritising, and asking if that’s correct – and making a few changes along the way.”
And, as his mother will no doubt be delighted to hear, among his biggest takeaways from lockdown has been the importance of family.
“I’ve really learned to appreciate time with my family,” he notes. “I’d see my parents quite regularly, but my sisters live in Cork. My mom was working in the pharmacy and my dad had just gotten a small operation on his shoulder, so we had to stay clear of each other for a good few weeks. After not being allowed to see each other for quite a while, you really appreciate the time you can spend with them.”
As someone accustomed to a regimented routine since his teenage years, Conor also felt the tough mental impact of the pandemic.
“Looking after your mind is so important,” he says. “I’ve been tapping into that over the last two or three years for work, and, even more importantly, for life in general – in terms of headspace and mindfulness. I have a decent routine, where I get up in the morning and do a bit of breathing, visualisation and gratitude. It can be a mixture of things, depending on what you’re feeling on the day. But when my routine went away, I definitely struggled for a while.
“I need to be moving all the time, and it’s really important for me to have a routine and a schedule to stick to – to be able to get out of bed knowing what I’m going to do for the day,” he continues. “Rugby takes up so much of that usually, so I was really trying to fill that space with everything: my sourdough starter, training, cooking, cutting the grass, watering the flowers. The house has never looked so good!”
Also keeping him occupied during lockdown is the latest addition to the family – he and his girlfriend Joanna Cooper’s cavapoo puppy, Kevin.
"We always joked that if we got a puppy we’d have to give it a human name,” Conor laughs. “It suits him I think – he’s definitely got the face of a Kevin!
“Joanna was checking online for a dog hourly during lockdown,” he continues. “It was actually eight weeks into the lockdown that I finally gave in. But he’s been brilliant. He’s gradually growing into his own little personality now, which is really cool to watch. He’s been great company.
“The cleaning up side of things though…” he trails off. “I’d have a slight bit of OCD, which is why it took so long for me to agree to a dog. He was downstairs earlier and he had eaten a letter for Joanna. So the first thing I had to do when I came back home from training was to hoover all that up. But I’m dealing with it, and other than that he’s great. He’s all trained now, in terms of going to the toilet out the back – so the stress levels are going down.”
Of course, with the barbers shuttered at the height of lockdown, stress levels were also tested by the necessary DIY haircuts…
“There were two home haircuts – and one was slightly better than the other,” he grins. “For the first one, Joanna actually did it really well, on one side. But it took so long that she lost interest, and didn’t really pay attention to the other side. So I was walking around with a bit of a wonky head for a while. The next time she did it, she nailed it – but they were very nervous times. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d be that worried about or protective of my hair, but I was speaking to a few other lads who felt the same. The power really is in the person who’s cutting your hair’s hands. You’re giving them license to do whatever they want.”
Similar adaptations had to be made in order to keep on top of his training – with a home-gym thrown together on the back patio, as well as plenty of cycles around the countryside. And although Conor was thrilled to get back to competitive rugby – readily adapting to the “new normal” of bubbles, masks and temperature checks – he admits that the absence of the crowd at matches has been jarring.
“It’s so weird, I won’t lie,” Conor acknowledges. “The first game back was against Leinster. We were running out to an empty Aviva, and a few of the lads started giggling to themselves, because it was so odd. There were a few claps from the management, and whoever else was allowed in the stadium – but that was it. You’re just standing in the middle of the pitch in silence, waiting for the other team to come out. But that’s just at the start. As soon as you get into the game, you don’t have much time to think, and it’s just another game of rugby. Hopefully numbers will start to be allowed back in, but I know it will be a while before we’re allowed to have full crowds in stadiums."
Until then, even seeing his teammates in person is enough to get excited about for now.
“We all stayed in touch on Zoom – but I hope I never have to do another Zoom quiz again in my life!” he laughs. “They were great at the start, but after a while you just want to be around people in real life, and have the chats.”
Ireland play Wales on Sunday, February 7 (kick-off 3pm)