Belfast Telegraph

Heineken Cup: Veteran Murphy still in driving seat

By Hugh Farrelly

As he heads for home in his diminutive Ford Kia — hardly an emblem of the stardom for which many would feel he qualifies — Geordan Murphy will pass through the Leicestershire countryside for the umpteenth time.

Yet, it will feel just like the first.

As he begins his 16th calendar year as Ireland's most durable exile, the road once less travelled has become a touchingly familiar byway that remains freighted with exciting possibilities.

Now 33, veteran status is automatically appended to his name but Murphy has many, many miles yet to run.

And some of them could be in the green of Ireland after he confirmed that, contrary to some pre-Christmas gossip, he is willing to commit to Declan Kidney's Six Nations plans in an emergency capacity.

It is at once a fitting commendation of Murphy's loyalty that only the briefest of phone calls to the Ireland coach was necessary to emit such fidelity to the national set-up.

Such loyalty has always under-pinned his career. Ever since the day when Leicester Tigers took a punt on a scrawny teenager way back in 1997, developing a relationship that has since developed a mutually inextricable bond.

“It's one big family to me,” he says simply, asked to distil the special nature of an enduring club-player relationship that has spanned a decade and a half, some 287 first-team appearances, seven league titles and three Heineken Cup wins.

For all that, loyalty does not offer any guarantees. “Loyalty is not an absolute thing at Leicester,” he insists. “All the coaches here through the years have constantly hammered home the same message. It doesn't matter what number is on your back, or what your international reputation is, it doesn't count for anything if you're not performing at this club.

“A coach will often come and tell a player that they will get dropped if they continue to under perform. Just because we have this status as a successful club in the past, just because we're called Leicester, it doesn't guarantee anything and that helps to maintain standards.

“We have no right to succeed because there are so many other teams in England and in Europe who want to succeed just as much as we do. Everything that we get we earn. And the list of our achievements is not down to who we are, but what we do.”

Murphy's standards show little sign in dipping, as last week's deft try-scoring dink-ahead for winger Horacio Agulla in the Premiership defeat of fallen giants Wasps vividly illustrated.

There were fears that Leicester could be on the verge of joining their fierce London rivals on the Premiership scrapheap this season, particularly after a dreadful start to the season that saw them marooned second from bottom in the league.

That they have battled back to reach the play-off stages ahead of the final Heineken Cup pool stage double-header of the season speaks voluminously of their indefatigable attitude.

Ravenhill tomorrow night represents another staging post on their journey back towards a position of ominously familiar post-Christmas positioning for the sport's major honours. Defeat, however, could end their European hopes.

“It's going to be a tough game, their home form is bril

liant up there and the last time we were there – this time eight years ago, an astonishing 33-0 reverse – we were absolutely humped.

“We've lost Louis Deacon and Toby Flood with injuries recently so it doesn't get any easier for us. It's been a bit of a struggle, we had 12 guys at the World Cup and a few injuries at the start of the season.

“So you had our second teams playing against first teams and there is no slackening off. We were second last and then when the World Cup players came back we were playing at full tilt.”

Hence his side have played four times in 18 days while Ulster, able to rest their entire first-team against Leinster over Christmas, have been able to prime perfectly for tomorrow's task.

Were Leicester free to unburden the shackles of their £4m salary cap and exploit their status as one of Europe's best supported clubs – average home attendance is 21,000 – then they too could afford to chase two hares with equally reckless abandon.

“You see Ulster at Leinster and they're able to rest players where we can't afford to do that in the Premiership. It's a great thing for Ulster. It's a double-edged sword I suppose.

“Players want to play but on the other hand it doesn't give you much time to recover from injuries compared to the way the Irish teams can manage it. It's the way the cookie crumbles though. Obviously the salary cap is the biggest hindrance to us. No other country has that. That's a big hindrance.

“It would be great if we could sign who we wanted. The domestic game here is trying to survive and there's more of a level playing pitch. We could be further ahead. We have got a bigger support than a lot of the other teams. If that was extended to what you could spend we would have a bigger squad. But we're stuck with it.”

And as he acknowledges, he knows nothing else. Before his latest contract extension, Murphy was sounded out by Brive and possibly several others. Before that, tentative calls from home were vaguely alluring.

A final, salary-uncapped bonanza has tempted many. But not him. “I've seen players coming through here and saying that they were going to be here for life,” he smiles. “Then they were gone. I'll never say never. My career has taught me that much so far! But I'm happy here. This club has been loyal to me and I feel I owe them that much at least.”

A debt that has been repaid several times over.

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