Ending Ulster’s drought would rival any of Jordi Murphy’s medals

Irish backrow will hope his experience of winning with Leinster will help his team

Eyebrows were raised when Jordi Murphy decided to relocate to Ulster in the summer of 2018, all the more so when he signed off his seven seasons with Leinster by playing a significant role in their Champions Cup/Pro14 double.

Murphy started all three knock out games in their European conquest, including the final against Racing in Bilbao, and the Pro14 semi-final against Munster before coming off the bench against Scarlets and lifting the trophy.

At 27, Ulster were acquiring a versatile and effective all-round backrower still in his prime, and a winner. He has become a mainstay of the team and sometime captain, and bought into his provincial home from home. Signed up until 2022, as they face into tomorrow’s European Challenge Cup semi-final away to Leicester (kick-off 8pm) it’s clear that ending Ulster’s 15-year trophy drought would mean as much to him as any of his previous winners’ medals.

“When I came here, I suppose Ulster weren’t in a great place, there had been a lot of turmoil,” he says in reference to their annus horribilis of 2017-18.

“People were kind of saying ‘you seem to be the only one jumping on this sinking ship’. But as soon as I was in the door, I realised the potential that this squad and this group had. Also the coaching staff we had, from day one they were so positive about everything and the way they coached was just brilliant.

“Look, we’ve come close the last number of years, but fallen short. It’s only a semi-final, so we’re not even at that final stage, we’ve got to win this before we get to there, but yeah this would be really, really big for me.

“Certainly, it would be one of my biggest accomplishments if we can get there; just the way this group has taken me in over the last two or three years, the friendships I’ve made and how far we’ve come the last number of years, this would be a really special one.

“There’s a lot of rugby to be played before we get there, and it adds to it that unfortunately Ulster haven’t won anything for the last 15 years. Certainly, the time is due where we need to win something, so this would be great.”

Last week marked something of a landmark birthday, as Murphy turned 30, marking the occasion with his partner Laura and their new baby girl Lilly - born on the day Ulster played Toulouse last December - at their home in Ballyhackamore, in East Belfast.

Hence, while he still has a few more years’ good rugby in him, who knows how many more opportunities like this there will be.

Murphy’s experience of being in Leinster’s winning culture must be of benefit in a week like this, although he tries to be selective in what he says.

“If I feel like there’s something I want to bring up, I certainly do. I’m not afraid to talk. Sometimes you might think of something in the past where we could have done better.

“Or something we’ve done well or those positive things, because this week is all about building confidence and positivity amongst the group and that’s something I try to do.

“The best way for me to lead is to do it by example, to try and train really well, be vigilant all week and get all the boxes ticked.

Key figures

“If there’s something to be said, I’m happy to say it. Nobody wants to hear the same voice all day long, so I try to pick my moments.”

Presuming Murphy, man of the match against the Saints, is restored alongside the in-form Nick Timoney and Sean Reidy, they will be key figures.

Leicester's South African backrower Jasper Wiese has beaten the most defenders (18) in this season's Challenge Cup and his compatriot Hanro Liebenberg is another of Leicester's go to carriers.

“We’ve seen a lot of clips of those boys and you’ve got to respect them enough to realise you can’t go chest on, you’ve got to take them on hips or knees and get good chop tackles in.

“We’ll have to have a lot of bounce about our game, energy around the corner, get off the line and make some impact tackles every time we get an opportunity.”

Whatever else happens tomorrow night, Murphy speaks of leaving everything on the pitch, as his wont, and that Ulster have no regrets. In this they can draw on the regrets from the back-to-back defeats in Pro14 final against Leinster and the Champions Cup quarter-final by Toulouse last September.

"In both those games, we didn't win the physicality battle and that's something Dan tries to instill in us, so does (forwards coach) Roddy Grant. That's something we would pride ourselves on.

“In both those games, there was plenty where we looked at it and thought ‘that’s not us’ whether it be not working hard enough for each other, not connecting in the line, doing uncharacteristic things where people switch off and things like that.

“Look, we’ve got a good game plan this week - I’m not going to tell you what it is - but as long as we can try and stick to the task and everyone gives 110 percent, I think we can come away with something this weekend.”