Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Rugby's Georgie Best? not me!

They called him rugby's George Best and it didn't take a genius to work out why.

Geordan Murphy has long possessed the talent to light up a rugby match with a moment of sublime skill as tasty as a cream bun. Only trouble was, one man never believed the comparison, never thought it applicable. Geordan Murphy wasn't fooled by such talk.

"Sure, it was flattering," he told me, as Ireland relaxed after another training session prior to their departure for France and the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

"Anyone would be by such a comparison.

"But I never took it seriously for one good reason. I'm no George Best. There was only ever one of his kind, he was unique. I never thought I deserved that tag."

Former Leicester coach Dean Richards made the comment a few seasons back. But Murphy and his mates joked that Richards meant in the sense of his off the field antics, not what he could do on a rugby field.

"George was such a fantastic player and besides, you cannot compare people with others in different sports," says Murphy.

"Even so, I wouldn't say I was as skilful as him. But I don't think it has been detrimental to me. Certain players have had a good giggle about it but that's about all."

And you have to say, Murphy's philosophy about enjoying himself away from the game is a world away from what Best's used to be.

"The last time I let my hair down was in the summer," he concedes.

"But it's not a sacrifice as far as I'm concerned, it's just different. Preparation for the World Cup has meant that I have rarely had a drink, apart from two or three beers on the odd occasion.

"But that's fine as far as I'm concerned because it is clearly detrimental to performance. We'll never again in rugby have the fun they used to have in the amateur days. Some of the drinking stories from those days are unbelievable.

"But today I can't imagine having drink the night before and then getting up and either training or playing, as George used to do. That seems so foreign to me."

You could have accused Bestie of just about anything but being abstemious? Never. Yet Murphy accepts the reality as a modern day professional should.

And as for the glamorous life of the modern day rugby professional, forget it. "We go to a lot of places around the world but don't actually see a lot of them. You are tucked up in the hotel most of the time and get maybe just one day a week off.

"But most guys don't then want to go sightseeing so it's not as glamorous as people think."

We should celebrate the likes of Geordan Murphy while we have them. They offer glimpses of what the old game used to be like - filled with moments of pure skill, entertainment, electrifying individual talents that could decide a match in the twinkling of a side-step or a clever reverse pass.

Modern day rugby is becoming too gladiatorial for the likes of Murphy; quick and talented for sure, but vulnerable to the excessive physicality which has now become an indispensable part of the game. That mania for size, strength and power is not going to dissipate; instead, it will intensify.

Even Murphy admits: "The guys that do make it to the top level in the future will be bigger, faster and stronger than the guys now. Thus, the collisions will be heavier, the impacts greater. Players today are much bigger than they were 20 years ago and it will be the same in 20 years time.

"But it would be a shame if rugby became like American Football, not about skill but size and power. I suppose that is a danger. It can look a gladiatorial sort of game even now with that sort of intensity and physicality. Those are the qualities all teams talk about these days. It means that most backs are trying to do things not to get hit.

" When you take the ball up in attack, you know how to look after yourself. You aim for soft shoulders and keep yourself low. But it is the collisions you are not expecting that can do the damage. Like when you go to side-step, lose your footing and get clobbered in the head."

At Murrayfield in the World Cup warm-up match against Scotland, Murphy caught a shoulder in his face and was hammered on several occasions. What does it feel like to be on the end of those sort of hits in modern day rugby ?

"You feel like you have been hit by a truck for a moment," he cheerfully concedes. "The last thing you remember is, you were falling and then you are in a pile on the ground."

As Murphy says, most rugby players tend not to think about the long term damage to their bodies. But you can be sure, there will be a price to pay for what they are doing, a point he readily concedes.

"I accept that the strain we are putting our bodies under definitely means we are going to have a lot of problems in later life."

Geordan Murphy differs from George Best in plenty of ways. He has a strong sense of realism, a grasp on life that will serve him well. He enjoys simpler pursuits, too, like catching up with his family. With four brothers and a sister and their families, there is a lot of catching up to do.

But maybe what Geordan Murphy enjoys most is, well, enjoying his sport. He's a super rugby player and a talented golfer. But he admits to certain frustrations in modern day rugby.

"Being professional, there is no longer the element of having fun, just enjoying it. There is so much pressure.

"Most teams are told, 'Just go out and win at all costs. Do what it takes to win'."

You sense very strongly that, deep down, it isn't Geordan Murphy's take on this sporting life.

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