Twenty years a Tiger: Geordan Murphy ready for fresh challenge

Leicester’s assistant coach favourite to take top job at Cardiff Blues next season

Geordan Murphy: “We let ourselves down on the big stage. We were bullied. We have an opportunity on Sunday to circle the wagons. Let’s see how we get on.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Geordan Murphy: “We let ourselves down on the big stage. We were bullied. We have an opportunity on Sunday to circle the wagons. Let’s see how we get on.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Matt O’Connor is as good a place as any to begin our catch up with Geordan Murphy.

The man who shaped his latter playing days and present coaching philosophy, along with Aaron Mauger and the ghosts of Tigers past. Murphy’s rigorous education will probably see him take the reins of the Cardiff Blues next season.

But the genial Australian – honestly, O’Connor’s a hilarious, grumpy yet nimble escapee from the ACT Brumbies creative laboratory (best mates with Joe Schmidt as well) – was also shaping headlines these past few days.

O’Connor’s “cynical” accusation after Leicester were suffocated by the hand of Peter O’Mahony and others flopping over the ball in Thomond Park bleeds into the second instalment at Welford Road on Sunday evening.

Publicly, the Tigers head coach screamed bloody murder, aiming most fire at the game’s best referee, Jérôme Garcès, yet keeping a round in the chamber for Andrew Conway.

The Ireland winger’s crouching tackle technique was deemed an intentional missile to break Telusa Veainu’s face. The Tongan fullback’s injury, while deeply unfortunate, also saw Conway helped from the scene dazed and confused.

Even the most naive observer knew what O’Connor was up to. It was a message to Mathieu Raynal, the poor unfortunate adjudicator ahead of the always compelling collision between these pillars of European rugby.

Remember the Lámh of Back. Rog trash-talking then delivering. Tough days. Dark days. Memories of misery and joy bundled up in the never-ending death dance between Tiger and Stag.

Hooves and claws aplenty, with Manu Tuilagi’s imminent return adding to the potent mix.

Matt O’Connor sprinkling spice into an already bubbling broth.

“What did Matty say?” Murphy asked during his familiar, if somewhat treacherous drive, on this wintry morning, to training...

Twenty years a Tiger, Geordan Murphy, formerly of Newbridge College and briefly a Kildare minor footballer, has 316 games to prove it.

East Midlands legend. Irish exile. Insider. Outsider.

“Standard Leicester, nothing said,” he smiles. “Our media department dug out the programme, which is nice to have, from the Cheltenham and Gloucester Cup in November ’97. Played against Rotherham. ”

On trial

The twiggy teenager who skipped over on trial after slipping through those porous early cracks in the Irish academy system. Leicester refused to let him leave. His first landlady was Martin Johnson’s mum.

It took a while to shake off the ‘George Best of rugby’ tag. His fault. Too many magic tricks.

Ireland rediscovered him before the “there is no policy” edict on players moving overseas. 74 caps (two as a Lion), 18 tries, a horrendous leg break, a Grand Slam all done between the selectoral whims of Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney as Geordie – not Georgie – although he was once engaged to a pop star quietly grew into a leader of men.

The boy from Naas succeeded a long line of tyrannical Leicester captains. Dean Richards. Martin Johnson. Geordan Murphy.

We tell the assistant coach what Matty said.

“It would be an interesting argument in a court of law, either way,” Murphy responds. “If Andrew Conway gets back to his feet and he is fine and he has broken Telusa’s jaw he is probably going to receive a six or eight ban, isn’t he?

“The fact Andrew knocks himself out is clear evidence he wasn’t trying anything malicious. He was just really committed.

“You can argue it both ways. The fact is we have lost our starting fullback for the majority of this season.”

Murphy learned how to approach referees like Wayne Barnes during the white heat of derby days against Northampton. He knew when to douse flames with a quip, when to steer clear. In Limerick Tom Youngs took another approach. More Jonno than Geordie.

“The breakdown is refereed slightly different in the Premiership to Europe but we weren’t good enough to deal with that on the night and that was the disappointing thing.

“Tom Youngs was really frustrated with Garces because we have a really good relationship with quite a few referees week in, week out. You can have conversations and they will allay your fears or at least listen to you. Let you have your say, whereas Garces was ‘Non, non’.

Typically French.”

What of Youngs neck-rolling Chris Cloete and bashing into CJ Stander?

“Cloete is a little ball of muscle over the ball and difficult to move. That one where Tom Youngs clearly neck rolled him was definitely a penalty but looking at it on replay it was a little frustrating that he was smiling and laughing yet 30 seconds later he is holding his throat.

Big edict

“There was a big edict from World Rugby about simulation and that was frustrating from our boys’ point of view.”

The flames are roaring again.

After the final whistle last Saturday night, the split screen showed O’Mahony reminding his troops about the beating they suffered on this return journey last season, while Murphy was holding court next door.

“I pretty much said the same. We had just lost the physicality battle. Munster deserved the win. We let ourselves down on the big stage. We were bullied. We have an opportunity on Sunday to circle the wagons. Let’s see how we get on.”

He sounds like a head coach. In the summer, Murphy held talks with US Rugby before Gary Gold took the Eagles job and according to the Welsh media the Cardiff Blues gig is a lock.

“Just having a look around really. I had an interesting meeting with the United States a couple of months ago. Long way to go with a young family so we just felt it wasn’t the right time for that gig.

“Cardiff is very interesting. I had a chat with them the other day. Leicester have offered me a two-year contract. I need to do what’s best for my family and for my coaching career.”

So there’s an offer on the table?

“I think I am on the shortlist for the Cardiff job. I haven’t made a decision either way. Not sure I’m the only one going for that job. We’ll see.”

A young Geordan Murphy in action for Leicester against Bath during the 2001 Zurich Championship Final at Twickenham. Leicester won 22-10. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Allsport
A young Geordan Murphy in action for Leicester against Bath during the 2001 Zurich Championship Final at Twickenham. Leicester won 22-10. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Allsport

Murphy, Ronan O’Gara and Leo Cullen are of the same vintage, Murphy and Cullen crossing swords in the 1996 schools final, they represent a new wave of coaching intelligentsia, pure bred from professionalism but retaining a valuable hint of amateur values.

“Leo has been doing a fantastic job. It’s about the support structure you get in around you,” Murphy says without mentioning Stuart Lancaster. “The easiest criticism to give is ‘Ow, it’s too soon’. You don’t want to be an excuse, you want to be firing and formulating with what you got. Cardiff is a really interesting one for me. It will be a tough decision.”

Having survived the ructions and sackings of Richard Cockerill and Aaron Mauger, he seemed set to be a Tiger for life.

Business decisions

“No, I don’t think that’s the case. Leicester are all bout making smart business decisions. Certainly the way we’ve been over the last five years that I’ve been a coach, there is no room for sentiment at the coal face.

“Richard Cockerill goes and they bring in Aaron Mauger who is an ex-player, an All Black and then he goes. If I don’t add value to the environment and to the team I would be gone too. Simple as that.

“As a coach you want to feel like you are always developing and learning. I think I have done that with Leicester. They haven’t offered me a contract out of loyalty. When your time is up it is up. Cockers was keen to remind me of that when he left.

“For me it’s been a roller-coaster of five years at Leicester. Lads retiring or getting sacked. It’s a tough environment. Pretty volatile. It’s just whether the deal is right, the environment is right and it’s the right time in your life.”

Murphy is ready to hop on the head coach roundabout. Mauger is with the Highlanders now, Cockerill is toughing up Edinburgh, as O’Connor returned for a second stint at Leicester having been sacked by Leinster.

Matty and Geordie (Part 2) has been workable. There was a flight to New Zealand for the 2011 World Cup when Murphy offered O’Connor’s playbook to Declan Kidney in vain hope that Ireland would expand their attacking philosophy to avoid what ended up happening against Wales in the quarter-final.

Neil Back and Leicester celebrate at the end of the match after the controversial 2002 Heineken Cup final victory over Munster at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
Neil Back and Leicester celebrate at the end of the match after the controversial 2002 Heineken Cup final victory over Munster at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

“I’m learning quite a lot about working with Matty as a coach, which is quite different from working with Matty as a player. Matty and Aaron are different ends of a spectrum in terms of coaching so for me it’s been brilliant.”

Explain?

“I think Aaron would be of the Canterbury model, Matt more directive – there is continuous feedback, very loud on the pitch, very amusing. They’ve both got their styles of coaching. As an assistant coach I’ve learned different styles on the job. I can formulate what I think is the right way.”

And what of O’Gara in Canterbury?

Unbelievable gig

“That will be an unbelievable gig. Canterbury invest a huge amount of time in coaching development. Aaron Mauger came through that system so he was kind enough to share what they do with me. Rog will be working with unbelievable players so he’ll learn. He’ll love it. He’ll come back a better coach.”

Is Paul O’Connell going to be the next Leicester forwards coach?

“Paulie is on the list. Actually had breakfast with him the other day.”

And?

“You’d have to ask Paulie. I know he was chatting to the club. The media reports seem to think it is not going to go through.”

Maybe we’ll see him beside you in Cardiff next season?

“No, no, no,” he laughs, “but he’d be very welcome anywhere I coach.”

Murphy is a father now to Rex George Murphy, with Aneka expecting their second child in April, so there remains a strong desire to return to Irish shores.

“I’d love to. I was given the opportunity as a player...”

There was a brief chat with Leinster and a real offer from David Humphreys in Ulster.

“But your playing career runs by pretty quickly. There were also opportunities to go over to France and I thought, ‘no, I’ll stay with Leicester’.

“Hopefully my coaching career will be longer than my playing career so it would be something I’d like to do. Rex would be a fine hurler. His Wexford auntie has already sent over the hurley and sliotar.”

Leicester v Munster - the history

Hand of Back – The 2002 Heineken Cup final. The Millennium Stadium.

Leicester 15-9 Munster. The scrum locks under the Tigers’ crossbar but as Peter Stringer feeds the ball Neil Back slaps it onto the Leicester side. Austin Healy clears. Leicester hang onto to their trophy.

Rog on TVThe Guardian headline from October 2006: “O’Gara rails at overblown, overconfident English.” Oh dear. A typically incisive Donald McRae interview produces a few nuggets for the changing room wall in Welford Road:

“The English public and their team still assume they should come out on top every time because, apparently, the natural order in rugby is that England are the greatest. It’s probably down to the way they’ve been brought up.”

O’Gara backs up the talk with a game-winning, game-ending penalty from the halfway line.

Leicester sack Thomond Park, January 2007 – Unbeaten at home in Europe, the last night before the old concrete gets bulldozed, and with safe passage to the quarter-finals already secured, Munster are out-Munstered on a biblical night by a Leicester side containing Shane Jennings, Leo Cullen, Geordan Murphy, former Munster scrumhalf Frank Murphy and a marvellously controlled display by Ian Humphreys.

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