Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Dubliner Morris delighted to earn stripes with Tigers

Full steam ahead: Niall Morris getting plenty of game time since his move to Leicester and will face Ulster at Ravenhill tomorrow night
Full steam ahead: Niall Morris getting plenty of game time since his move to Leicester and will face Ulster at Ravenhill tomorrow night

Sometimes it's not who you are that makes you, but where you are. Dublin-born Niall Morris had few qualms about swapping the east coast of Ireland for the east midlands of England a little over two years ago.

Now, as he prepares for the briefest of returns to these shores for Friday night's gigantic Heineken Cup tussle with Ulster at Ravenhill, the 25-year-old has had little difficulty in exchanging his normal wing berth for the full-back position.

With Jared Payne likely to be forced into a switch as the Craig Gilroy experiment looks set to be disrupted by injury, be prepared for a long-term audition to be the next challenger to Rob Kearney's pre-eminence as Ireland's No 1 full-back.

Selected in Joe Schmidt's initial 42-man panel for last month's training squad, Morris owes much to a childhood hero who is now his primary coaching influence, probably the most famous gilded exile of them all, Geordan Murphy.

"Geordan is a massive influence," enthuses Morris. "When I was a kid, he was someone I had always looked up to. Coming over here, we were team-mates for two years.

"I get on with him very well. Off the pitch, he's always willing to help me. And on the pitch, he has so much experience and his advice is invaluable. It's just great to have him around."

Morris can stand on his own two feet now, though. His leaving of Leinster may have been fraught with nervous anticipation, but his skills rendered the move an absolute no-brainer.

Leinster may have regrets, Morris has none.

"It's gone really well," he says understatedly. "When I moved over, I was a bit unsure as to what I was letting myself in for. But I haven't regretted one minute of it. I enjoy the club culture, the environment.

"All the lads are great fun. And, importantly, I'm getting on the pitch now more than ever. I've had a great two-and-a-half years here. It's been good for my rugby. It's helped me to grow as a person off the pitch as well. Hopefully, it can continue."

Once the multi-medalled Murphy pitched up at Leicester in the late 90s, he never left. Could Morris do the same?

"I don't know about my future," he says. "When I was 18 or 19, I would have said there's no chance of me playing for Leicester. In sport you never know what might happen. I'm here for another two years and then we'll see what happens."

He had a frustrating time with Leinster, making just eight appearances in two seasons, and only half of those were starts. Aironi, Connacht and Dragons were his lot. Arriving at work on Monday morning, there was Nacewa, Horgan, Fitzgerald, Conway and a couple of Kearneys ...

"That's the thing, in Ireland there are only four clubs. There's such a talent pool in Ireland, that if some young players aren't going to move away, you're either a superstar or there's no room to shine. So many have to go away now, but that's a credit to Irish rugby because there's so much talent in the country, there isn't enough room for them all to play."

Leicester may have had a few injuries, but one senses the shift to full-back forms part of long-term thinking on their behalf. In any case, it is not foreign territory for the former Blackrock boy.

"Not all wingers could play at full-back, so that's an advantage for me, that I can play both. It's been good. I've been really happy. Obviously when we win, there aren't any glaring issues," he says. "Geordan gives me a lot of advice and tips on things that I should work on. The positioning side of it is not very glamorous.

"If you're not in the right position everyone notices. At full-back, you can be quite exposed. If there's a mistake made there, everybody knows it's your fault. You have to move around a lot, talk a lot to the wingers and the infield players. That's probably something that I need to work on in terms of communication. So there's plenty of room for improvement."

He is boosted by Joe Schmidt's confidence and knows that being in exile will not count against him in terms of Ireland selection.

"I know that opportunity exists. It's nice to know that Ireland are looking. At least I have a chance if I'm playing well."

When Schmidt visits Belfast this Friday, he will get another chance to see for himself that Morris is still the same person. He's just moved on.

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