Forward who changed rugby’s style of goal-kicking

James Murphy-O’Connor: June 6th, 1925 – August 10th, 2014


James Murphy-O’Connor, known as Jim, who has died aged 89, was an Irish rugby international credited with developing a revolutionary kicking technique in the late 1940s.

Standing 6ft 6in, Murphy-O’Connor was the tallest player to have represented Ireland when he ran out at Twickenham in 1954. His career saw him represent the Combined Services, Bective Rangers, London Irish, Leinster and Ireland.

Unusually for a forward, Murphy-O’Connor was the goal kicker of choice for club, province and country. This was mainly as a result of his success rate which was secured from a style of stroking the ball with the instep of his boot rather than the traditional toe cap “punt” that most kickers had used up to that time.

While many commentators believed that his new style could result in a broken ankle, Murphy-O’Connor’s kicking style is still used by the top kickers today. He won the Leinster Cup with Bective Rangers in 1948 in a side which included Cliff Morgan, the Welsh legend. Tony O’Reilly ended up on the losing side that day, a point he often reminded Murphy-O’Connor about over the years.

Murphy-O’Connor represented Ireland at a time when the Grand Slam-winning side of 1948 was in decline. His appearance against England was the first time Ireland had played in the Five Nations without talisman Jack Kyle since 1948. Murphy-O’Connor scored Ireland’s only points of the day with a characteristic penalty kick from the halfway line.

Although selected for the Scotland game later that season, Murphy-O’Connor was unable to add to his one cap as a result of injury.

Murphy-O’Connor was born in Reading on June 6th, 1925, to Dr George and Ellen Murphy-O’Connor. He was the eldest of six children with all five of the boys attending Prior Park College in Bath. His youngest son, James, is now headmaster there.

Three of the boys took Holy Orders and served as Catholic priests in the Portsmouth diocese – the youngest of the five sons is Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster and former Primate of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

Medical training

After a brief stint in the navy, Murphy-O’Connor completed his training at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. His decision to represent Leinster during these years resulted in a mild rebuke from his father and uncle, who had both captained Munster as the family had its origins in the city of Cork.

The Murphy-O’Connor family comprised doctors and priests. Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, the biblical Scholar, who died last year, was a cousin.

Murphy-O’Connor moved back to England to start his medical career and became a partner in his uncle’s practice in Slough. Here he eventually became senior partner, enjoying a career in the service of others. He became particularly attached to the new communities who moved in to Slough from the 1950s onwards. He was also a senior medical officer for ICI until his retirement.

After his rugby career, Murphy-O’Connor turned to golf where he became a most accomplished player, competing in the Irish Amateur Open in 1955. He was captain of Denham Golf Club where he was a lifelong member, winning every major competition.

He forged strong friendships with Denis Compton and the unusually large ex-rugby international community which included Ted Woodward (who played against him for England), Gordon MacDonald and Malcolm Thomas, and the former Wasps scrum half, Lou Stalder.

He was also a popular member of the rugby internationals’ Golfing Society and a guest player for many years on the Wasps’ Golfing Society. He part-owned a succession of race horses, trained by David Gandolfo, with his friends.

Grand Slam

Murphy-O’Connor, who had a deep Catholic Faith, married Anne O’Neill, sister of Irish rugby international William “Boldie” O’Neill, in 1957. She survives him, with their six children and 20 grandchildren.