Murphy’s law: ‘It’s a fickle world but it’s nice to be doing what you love’
Leicester’s Irish coach knows the pressure is on at a club where the message is win, just win
In early September Geordan and Anneka were christening Rex’s little brother Oscar when the Leicester board came calling. Matt O’Connor had been sacked. With his apprenticeship well and truly served since the smooth transition from club hero to Welford Road boot-room in 2013, Murphy made no secret of his ambition to become a head coach with Cardiff short-listing him last season.
A Tiger since captivating the great Bob Dwyer, when travelling for a trial with Newbridge College pal James Ferris way back in 1997, the 40-year-old knew the answer he’d have to give.
Suddenly, the original Geordie Murphy has the East Midlands most perilous job. Perhaps he is immune to the poison chalice. Either way, he sups away.
Ripples caused by Will Spencer’s tackle against Wasps still rankle but so does what happened Dominic Ryan and how Leicester have been portrayed in the aftermath of the 28-year-old’s forced retirement.
Today his slightly revived club - two wins from two - visit Belfast for an opening Champions Cup game that already feels like a European deal breaker.
Gavin Cummiskey: You weren’t long realising the difference between assistant and head coach? Geordan Murphy: Definitely. When your head is on the block it is slightly different but it’s good in the same sense. GC: How did the job come about so early in the season?
GM: We had a review at the end of last season and obviously the board wasn’t very happy with us for not making the [English Premiership] play-offs for the first time in 14 years. There were conflicting views on what they wanted to do at that stage. We started back into preseason with Matty [O’Connor]. He had said to the board that there were going to be some changes with the structure of playing but they weren’t very happy with results in pre-season and then we opened up with a horrific display against Exeter [losing 40-6 at Sandy Park].
I got a phone call on the Sunday while christening my young fella. ‘Look, the board are having a meeting . . .’ but I didn’t think much of it. I got a call Monday afternoon while on the way to help out with the ‘A’ team backline - because we are pretty short staffed - saying Matty has been sacked and we haven’t got anyone to do it at the minute so would you be interested on an interim basis? I had spoke to Anneka about it and she said, ‘You pretty much have to.’
Last season you were clearly ready to become a head coach so when Leicester asked was there no choice, even though the season was under way?
GM: I’d much prefer to be awarded it on merit. So, it’s not the way I’d wish for it but I couldn’t turn it down either.
GC: Any indication how “interim” gets removed from your title as Leicester head coach?
GM: I had a chat with [Bath director of rugby] Todd Blackadder at the European launch and he said ‘At the minute most coaches are interim coaches they just don’t have the title.’ I just want to do the job. I’ve been at the club a long time and feel there are a few things we can do to improve the environment. We have not been successful for a while now and from my point of view we got certain things wrong. It’s an opportunity for me to fix it on a short term basis and we’ll see what happens from there.
GC: Some clubs have a director of rugby, like Mark McCall at Saracens, that insulates the boss from being removed as they hire coaches below them while we’ve seen how helpful Stuart Lancaster has been for Leo Cullen at Leinster - are there these options at Leicester?
GM: I’m enjoying the on field coaching but there is a huge workload that goes with the head job. Organisation is so important. Leo must spend most of his time speaking to people and sending emails. How Leo has done it is pretty impressive but I have to focus on coaching. It’s not too bad at the minute.
GC: You’ve worked under all types – Dean Richards, Matty O’Connor twice, Richard Cockerill, you always said good things about Pat Howard, Aaron Mauger, Marcelo Loffreda. What kind of head coach are you?
GM: I’ve taken bits and pieces from all of them. I was very lucky to work with Warren Gatland at the start of my Ireland career and there was Bob Dwyer, Eddie and Deccie who all had different styles. You have to be the coach that you are. I like to think I’m a people person so I try to have good conversations with players and other coaches to get the best out of them.
GC: Ronan O’Gara (Crusaders) and Girvan Dempsey (Bath) previously went on tour with Ireland, have you had any dealings with Joe Schmidt?
GM: I spoke to Simon Easterby a few times about getting over to Carton House but being English-based I’m not sure, maybe that works against me! Our paths have never really crossed but he is someone I’d be keen to sit down with and pick his brain.
GC: No Premiership title for Leicester since 2013, is that priority number one?
GM: Yes, but I don’t know if it is going to be me who delivers it. There has been a lot of chopping and changing at the club but we want to develop younger players as well. Look at the successful teams anywhere in rugby - they have incredible academy systems. Leinster are churning quality youngsters year in, year out.
GC: Leo Cullen highlighted the model Leinster have created in comparison to wealthy French and English clubs buying foreign players to win trophies – must Leicester go a different way to Saracens or even Exeter, do they have to look at the Irish model?
GM: We don’t have the financial clout Leinster have. We are limited in the Premiership with salary caps. Balancing that is the toughest challenge for us.
GC: Exeter and Saracens have gone to another level in England, is it the financial disadvantage?
GM: Look how much Saracens are in debt, ¤50 million? Exeter have been really impressive under Rob Baxter in how they built a squad, after going down to the championship, basing it on young talent, your Henry Slade’s, Luke Cowan-Dickie’s.
GC: The Will Spencer tackle - I know you dealt with it in the immediate aftermath and clarified your views a few days later, but watching your reaction to the red card, on the touchline, it was obvious you needed to calm down before Martin Bayfield asked you questions live on BT Sport. How do you reflect on it all now?
GM: It was just massively misconstrued. I have enough friends who struggled with head injuries and had to retire because of concussions for it to ever be something I would take lightly. I think people mistook what I said about the tackle. We went to a hearing and Tommy Taylor gave us a statement saying he was not hit on the head, he was hit on the shoulder and he slid up. [Wasps coach] Dai Young was fine with it, all of the Wasps players were okay with it, only when you slow things down and watch the stills it obviously looked bad.
Now, I totally get we are trying to lower the body height of tackles but I just felt it was one of those watershed moments that needs to be upheld. Will received a four-week ban, and I think he was made an example of really, and it was probably the right thing but I am watching the Premiership every week and seeing contact with the head and not seeing red cards. It’s really difficult, it’s tough for the referees, but in saying that I get it. I look back on it now and it ruined the game. A lot of people in rugby who’ve been around for a long time have said it was probably a yellow but you can’t really argue, can you? It’s a tough one. Good learning curve as well.
GC: What can you say to Will Spencer, would you change his technique?
GM: We don’t practice tackling high, nobody does, and we as a club have the best record in the Premiership for dealing with head injuries and the head injury assessments, and immediate removals. There have been some high profile ones which are probably not as good as we would like but as a club I think our record is pretty impressive.
Not a dirty player
But from Will’s point of view he is a big man who is just going to have to work on getting lower. He is not a dirty player. He was actually devastated by it as his four-week ban put us under a lot of pressure, with a lot of our second rows injured with concussions and out for a few weeks as well. Will genuinely felt he was aiming for the nipple line and [Taylor] dipped a little bit. We have to work on tackling lower and from a coaching point of view that is something we have to deal with going forward.
GC: You have always been accessible and quotable as both a player and coach but after the reaction to saying rugby has gone “too PC” and “we need to start picking players under five foot” - will that make you more hesitant to speak?
GM: I think so. It was the heat of the moment. You need to be very careful what you say because when I said it wasn’t a red card people heard that I thought it was perfectly acceptable and that I think head injuries aren’t serious. From that point of view I have to be careful about what I say and try and say less.
GC: Did it become a perfect storm following news of Dominic Ryan’s retirement as I’m sure you read his harrowing interview?
GM: I know Dominic Ryan very well. I spoke to Dom on the phone a couple of weeks ago, before it all kicked off. I’m going to have him back over, we are looking at a date when he is free, he is studying at the minute, but we want to have him back over to receive a shirt and get a proper send off at the club he finished at. Now, obviously that was horrific and the way that incident was laid out wasn’t probably . . . I know the club will get lambasted for it but having spoken to the medical department they feel like it wasn’t as clear cut as it would look. We would never have put Dom out if we realised the severity of it. I think he appreciates that as well.
GC: Is there anything to learn from that – you even say you have a couple of second rows out with concussion at the moment and I know you are doing your best, but is there any way of doing more to protect players from themselves, because you need to get them on the pitch as well?
GM: The way the game is we do have to look after guys from themselves. Nine times out of 10 we have made the guys realise how severe the incidents are. Dom retiring early brings it all home. The physios are very, very tight on it. Over the last few years we are all educating ourselves more about concussion awareness. In the Premiership we had the best record last year, we had nine immediate removals and 11 guys going off for HIA’s and only 20 per cent came back. So, two of the 11 came back. Other teams are returning guys at about a 50 per cent rate . . . Our head of medical Ed Hollis really clamps down on it.
The Dominic Ryan one at Northampton, we already had a player off being assessed with a HIA when Dom made the tackle in the corner. We didn’t have a second doctor at the time and the footage that was sent to our medical team, [because] they were already doing a HIA on another guy, they didn’t actually see until after the game.
And obviously that was addressed with our medical department and now we have two doctors. It will be the case down the line where something will happen and we will have to use three. It’s horrible because you want to look after the players. That’s the most important thing from our point of view. We are standing guys down if we are even in doubt. We are just standing them down. We err on the side of caution rather than risk guys.
GC: Martin Raftery, chief medical officer for World Rugby, says there is no “magic bullet” so it could get worse, but did the current reality regarding concussion exist at the end of your playing career?
GM: No, it didn’t. I look back at Lewis Moody who got concussed in most games he played and we’d encourage him to get back up and on the field. We didn’t know. The awareness just wasn’t there. Looking back we almost laughed about it, which is scary really because if you speak to anybody who has played from my generation or before we have all got different injuries or pieces of our bodies that are probably going to need operations down the line. That’s the body, never mind the mind.
GC: Leicester, having seen the environment, above all else the message in the club is win, just win?
GM: That’s certainly the case. A huge amount of our support base has been spoiled for a very long time with success. For a quite a few years we have been in the vicinity of being successful but we haven’t won anything. It’s quite frustrating. You’d love to be back on the podium. Our fans know the game pretty well.
GC: Three years ago Leo Cullen was the worst coach in the world after losing to Wasps, Bath and Toulon in Champions Cup but now he is framed as the best - can you look at that or even talk to Leo about your position?
GM: You crack on with what you believe in. Look at the best coach in the world, Steve Hansen. The Welsh will probably be wondering how many games he won when he was their head coach. They know he is a great coach but the results didn’t match the ability. We all watched Lancaster with England and with Leinster. It’s a fickle world but it’s nice to be doing what you love.
GC: Ulster v Leicester; a must-win game considering Scarlets and Racing 92 are swimming in the Pool?
GM: It’s a massive game. Like every game in Europe. We’ve not played quality rugby at all this season and Ulster are coming off the back of a big loss in Munster and they’d be very disappointed with the Connacht result. It’s going to be a big ask for us. We just came off a massive game against Northampton at Twickenham so we have more busted and broken bodies so the squad is being tested. We are down to some replacements you won’t recognise when you see the team.
We don’t have the financial clout Leinster have. We are limited in the Premiership with salary caps. Balancing that is the toughest challenge for us We don’t practice tackling high, nobody does, and we have the best record in the Premiership for dealing with head injuries and the head injury assessments
GC: How about Simon Zebo’s try scoring exploits in Paris?
GM: Scoring tries for fun, he’s playing very well. We have had Racing in our group for a few years, they are the galácticos, and in the off season they go sign Simon and Finn Russell.
GC: Any sympathy for Zebo as back in your day he would have been recalled to the Ireland squad? GM: How much is he getting paid? GC: Ok, I’ll leave you alone. How are you coping with being a dad to two young boys and coaching one of the biggest clubs in England?
GM: It’s grand. There’s always pressure. My good buddy James Ferris always told me, ‘Pressure is for tyres.’
Geordan Murphy: “There’s always pressure. My good buddy James Ferris always told me, ‘Pressure is for tyres’.”