AS JORDI MURPHY waited at the back of the queue alongside the retiring Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton on the halfway line of the San Mamés last May, many wondered was he making the right decision.
The ink on his move to Ulster had dried long before that memorable day, yet you wondered.
Murphy lifting the Champions Cup in Bilbao. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Leaving his native province, the club he grew up supporting and had represented for the last seven years, was always going to be tough. It was home.
But, now, here he was lifting the Champions Cup trophy aloft alongside Nacewa and Sexton in Bilbao after a brilliant performance, before coming off the bench in the Pro14 final as Leinster completed a historic double. He was a vital component of their success.
Granted it was the perfect way to sign off, but there must have been doubts. It’s all Murphy had ever known, to run out in the blue with team-mates and friends he had come up through the ranks alongside. Leaving it all behind — even if it was for a move two hours up the road — was a big call.
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“It wasn’t the easiest decision in the world,” he admits. “But I knew it was for the betterment of my rugby.”
Fast forward eight months, and Murphy — albeit with the benefit of hindsight — can reflect on his relocation to Belfast with a greater degree of certainty. It was the right decision all along, and his performances in the white, and red, of Ulster ensures there is no arguing otherwise.
Sitting in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel out at Dublin Airport, the 27-year-old has just returned from Leicester with the northern province, where they came from behind to beat the Tigers and book a place in the knockout rounds of Europe for the first time in five years.
Murphy — sporting a small graze just above his right eye — played in all but 30 minutes of the pool stages for Dan McFarland’s side, performing a key role as Ulster navigated their way out of choppy waters and into the quarter-finals.
As our conversation progresses, results in Coventry and Toulouse strive to set up an All-Ireland date with Leinster in late March, and for Murphy, an interesting return home to face some familiar faces. “We’ll relish that challenge,” he smiles.
That’s for a later date, though, because the focus has sharply turned to the Six Nations. Back in Ireland tracksuit, this is where the serious business starts as Joe Schmidt’s squad prepare to fly out to the Algarve for a pre-championship training camp.
Another seven days on, and the opening game against England is just a week away, with Ireland back on home soil and entering Test-match mode at their Carton House base.
“It’s great to be in the squad but I want to be involved in every game and contribute as much as I can,” Murphy says.
After all, that’s why he left Leinster at the end of last season.
The flanker has made 11 appearances for Ulster this term. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO
Change, Murphy says, was what he needed. His career had hit a crossroads, and a conversation with Schmidt ahead of the 2017 November series left him with no choice but to seek opportunities elsewhere if he was to maintain the ambition of playing for Ireland.
The former Blackrock College student had fallen behind Seán O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy in the Leinster pecking order, and his lack of big-game minutes at club level came at an even greater price. Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell was in the door at Carton ahead of him.
“My end goal is to be involved with Ireland and be involved in the really big occasions,” he explains. “Like I said, it wasn’t just Europe for my club, but to be involved in November series and Six Nations and I knew the World Cup was on the horizon as well.
“I wasn’t getting in the matchday 23s in big European games for Leinster, and when it came to November selection in 2017, I had a conversation with Joe and he just said ‘I haven’t seen enough of you’.
“So it was one of those decisions, I had a look at what the options were and I knew if I had international aspirations and ambitions, I needed to move. I was stuck in a rut and needed a new challenge.”
Murphy’s agent, Niall Woods of Navy Blue Sports, got to work. There were offers from abroad, but the flanker knew he had to stay in Ireland if he was to remain in contention for this year’s World Cup. Ulster presented him with the best chance of getting to where he wants to be.
And so, after coming out of the Blackrock College nursery and up through the famed Leinster academy, Murphy decided to bid farewell to the RDS after 107 appearances for the Boys in Blue.
“It’s quite tough when you’re not picked on the big occasions,” he continues. “You’re sitting there on the bench in a suit, and obviously, you’re wishing the best for your team but you really want to be out there and I’m not the kind of player who is happy to sit back every weekend and potentially make a matchday 23 if there are a couple of injuries.
“I really want to be involved week in, week out. It was just one of those things and I looked at my future. I don’t want to be a player that, no disrespect to some of the teams in our league, but is sent to play against perceived lesser teams and never gets big opportunities when the serious business arrives.
“I had a taste of it at such a young age but once it started going away, I wanted it again. I just needed to find a way to get that. It’s a good thing as well. I had spent over 10 years in the Leinster system, whether it was underage level and then into the senior squad, so just to get out of my comfort zone and my bubble in Dublin was good.
Murphy in action against USA last November. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland
“It may only be two hours up the road, but it’s something different. It has helped me grow as a person as well and I’m really enjoying it.”
So far, so good. But few would have blamed Murphy for reconsidering it all towards the back end of last season. O’Brien and van der Flier were crocked, and the retirement of Jamie Heaslip and a knee injury to Jack Conan, pressed him into action for Leinster and Ireland.
Appearances off the bench against Scotland, and then in the Grand Slam party at Twickenham, saw Murphy hit a rich vein of form and earned him a place on the plane to Australia, where he featured in all three Tests against the Wallabies. Maybe he didn’t need to leave Leinster for his fortunes to change.
“From a personal point of view, the decision was made because I wanted to be playing a bit more regularly and playing in the big games in Europe, week in, week out,” Murphy says.
“At the time of my decision, it wasn’t really happening for me and it was just a time when I came to a crossroads in my career and thought it was good to get a change.
“I made the decision at the time for the right reasons and I’m a man that sticks to my word, so I was more than happy to go through with it. I didn’t really understand people saying ‘oh, do you think you can step back from it or somehow get out of it?’
“I was just like, ‘absolutely not’, because the way things worked out at the end of my time at Leinster, I couldn’t have wished for a better ending really. To go and do the double with some schoolmates and friends I had made throughout the years there was a perfect ending.
While Murphy’s hand may have been forced, fluid player movement between the provinces is becoming increasingly prevalent. See Joey Carbery’s relocation south as the most recent, and high-profile, example.
“It was definitely the right move at the right time and I’m glad I made it. In the years to come, we probably will see more interchange between the provinces. I just think with the quality coming through the academies, there’s just not enough room for everyone.
“Sometimes it’s a timing thing, sometimes it’s an injury thing where you don’t get your opportunities you need to flourish and you just have to move on and try and make it somewhere else. If you really want it enough, you’ll make the right decision and I couldn’t be happier in Belfast.”
Murphy hopes his performances for the province will help force his way into the Ireland back row for Saturday’s championship opener against England at the Aviva Stadium.
Murphy was speaking to The42 at a Canterbury event last week. Source: Ryan Bryne/INPHO
Just as he was not content to bide his time for starting chances at Leinster, the Barcelona-born back row is not prepared to settle for bit-part roles within the national team in such a seismic year for Irish rugby.
“The focus for me is to just keep my form going now,” he adds. “I’ll need to get even better, though. It’s going to be very tough to get selected for camps for the World Cup, but to actually board the plane to get over there to Japan will be even harder.
“And that’s the pinnacle of your international career, to make World Cup squads. I’m going to have to get better and better every week, but at the moment I can’t complain too much with how things have gone.”
After featuring in three of Ireland’s four November Tests to bring his tally of caps to 26, Murphy wants to push on.
“A lot rides on training, how you perform in training,” he says of this week’s selection.
“Every day I’ve got to give it 110%, make sure I get my body in the best condition possible and just nail down my detail from day one. Just work really, really hard and hopefully, the rest will look after itself.”
Ireland Rugby players Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander and Jacob Stockdale are encouraging fans to show their colours ahead of the Six Nations Championship. Canterbury is the official kit supplier of the Irish Rugby team and the official Ireland Rugby range is on sale now from Canterbury.com and Intersport Elverys.
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