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

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP - Gavin Cum­miskey GC:

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?

Con­flict­ing views

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?

Fi­nan­cial clout

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?

Sup­port­base

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.’

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAVID ROGERS/GETTY IM­AGES

Ge­or­dan Mur­phy: “There’s al­ways pres­sure. My good buddy James Fer­ris al­ways told me, ‘Pres­sure is for tyres’.”

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