A decade ago

The bolt from the blue that launched the career of one of Munster's last European champions

“The first thing you do is you tell the parents,” Denis Hurley recalls. “My dad couldn’t believe it at all.”

THE NIGHT BEFORE they played Gloucester in a Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2008, several Munster players went to the stadium for some kicking practice. Denis Hurley joined Ronan O’Gara, Paul Warwick and Doug Howlett in finalising their preparations for a game against a team who finished at the top of the English Premiership that season.

While they were doing so, a group of Munster fans somehow found their way into Kingsholm and stayed to observe what was going on out on the pitch. Presumably distracted by the refreshments on offer in the local hostelries, the curious fans were seemingly oblivious to the team news Declan Kidney revealed to the media earlier in the day.

Denis Hurley Denis Hurley in possession for Munster in the 2008 Heineken Cup quarter-final against Gloucester. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I was just after finishing kicking so I sat down on the touchline to put on my runners,” Hurley explains. “These fans were there telling me about other fans who didn’t have tickets and were considering hiding in the toilets in Kingsholm to get in to watch the game the next day. Anyway, we were chatting away but I think they thought I was just there to kick the balls back to the lads or something like that.”

The supporters in question could have been forgiven for such an oversight. Hurley had never even sat on the bench for a Heineken Cup game before. He was also a full-back, a position which was generally occupied by one of Munster’s most experienced and reliable campaigners, Shaun Payne.

The veteran South African started in all six games en route to that stage, as Munster managed to finish at the summit of Pool 5 at the expense of Top 14 runners-up Clermont Auvergne, defending European champions Wasps, and a Llanelli Scarlets side who eliminated Declan Kidney’s men in the quarter-finals the previous season.

Nevertheless, the Munster head coach opted to make a call which ultimately kickstarted Denis Hurley’s professional career. The arrival of quarter-final weekend in European club rugby for 2018 means that a decade has now passed since Hurley was plucked from relative obscurity to make his Heineken Cup debut.

At the age of 23, the former St Munchin’s College student began to make his presence felt in the Munster squad in that 2007-08 season. Hard-working, defensively sound, excellent under the high ball, and clever and creative in possession, Hurley made his mark at 15 before eventually evolving into a very effective inside-centre later in his career.

By the time the week of Munster’s meeting with Gloucester arrived, the Cork-born back had made five appearances in the Magners League. That included starts in their two most recent outings prior to the trip to Kingsholm. But despite impressing in the wins over Ulster and Connacht, Hurley still expected to be watching on TV at home as Munster sought to reach another Heineken Cup semi-final.

Denis Hurley Hurley in AIL action for Cork Constitution in January 2008. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“It was an experienced squad of players and they had done well to qualify from a tough pool,” says Hurley, whose father Gerry was a member of the Munster squad who recorded a famous win over the All Blacks in 1978. “I had gotten a few runs [in the Magners League], which I thought was just an opportunity for Shaun Payne to take a break. He was 35 or 36 at the time.

“Even at the beginning of the week of the game, I just assumed I wouldn’t be playing any part. We were training in UL on the Tuesday. The group would be brought in for the team meeting, usually at around 10am, and Declan Kidney named out the team. You’re sitting in a room with a group of experienced players who had been through the mill, some of the best players in the game who had already been extremely successful.

“At that stage I probably still knew them better as a Munster fan than as a player. To be sitting in that kind of company — you’ve never played in a European game before — and then all of a sudden your name is called out to start in a Heineken Cup quarter-final. It was a shock to say the least. I was almost a bit jittery. Something like that is not an every-day occurrence, so you’re a small bit numb.

“Once the meeting was over, guys were coming over to shake my hand and wish me the best of luck. It was the same for Tomás [O'Leary], because he was in a similar position to myself. He was picked at scrum-half ahead of Strings [Peter Stringer], which people probably didn’t expect either.

“The first thing you do is you tell the parents. My dad couldn’t believe it at all. I remember he was just like, ‘What? You’re joking!’ It probably took a while to sink in, but I had to remind myself quickly that this was a Heineken Cup quarter-final so I needed to have my shit together.”

Hurley, who had been playing for Cork Constitution in the All-Ireland League a few weeks earlier, adds: “One of the things that made it easier than it might have been was having such an experienced group of guys around me. They knew each other so well and they knew what they wanted. Because of that, they could say to themselves: ‘Denis hasn’t had an opportunity to run these calls that often so let’s guide him a little bit and make sure we give him a heads-up on any of the nuances of any of the movements’. That was a massive help.”

Denis Hurley with Shaun Payne in the changing room with the Heineken Cup Trophy Hurley with Shaun Payne after the 2008 Heineken Cup final. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Shaun Payne had originally planned to retire at the end of the previous season, before being convinced to play on for one more year. The end may have been on the horizon for a cult hero who played a key role in Munster’s maiden Heineken Cup success two years earlier, yet there was scant suggestion in the build-up to the Gloucester game that his place was under threat. However, Declan Kidney clearly felt Hurley had something valuable to offer his side at a venue where visiting teams were always assured of a hostile reception.

“Shaun came up to me and said, ‘Listen mate, best of luck’. It’s obviously not easy for any player when someone takes your spot,” Hurley recalls. “The competitive nature in every professional player means you want to be part of the big days. As much as I’m sure that it was a knock to him that he wasn’t involved, he was still good enough to come over and wish me luck for the week.

“I assume that the selection was to do with different types of players. Shaun was very effective in terms of his skill, he was a great kicker and he understood the game so well at that point. He was a guy you felt was always one of the first names on the team sheet.

“Tony McGahan was the backs and defence coach at the time, and Shaun and I would obviously have worked quite closely with Tony. One of the things that Tony often said he liked about me was my size and my ability to hit the line at pace. That was more than likely one of the reasons why I was brought in — maybe it suited our gameplan against Gloucester.

“Being a big enough guy and going over to Kingsholm where they can be a tough crowd to play in front of, and Gloucester were a physical team as well, my physicality might have been a factor. I probably had been performing quite well in the few games I’d been given an opportunity in too.

“I suppose another thing about it was that because it was such a good team with a brilliant group of players, there weren’t normally many changes made. Donnacha Ryan would have been a good buddy of mine through the years. His break came later than mine, even though he was with Munster before I was. He had three internationals ahead of him. That’s the type of era you’re talking about in terms of the type of quality that was available to Munster.”

General view of the match Kingsholm Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

On a Saturday afternoon on the first weekend of April in 2008, over 16,000 spectators squeezed into Kingsholm, where Munster had played twice before in the Heineken Cup and lost on both occasions — 35-16 in October 2002, and 22-11 in January 2004.

Hurley: “We stayed in a hotel in Cheltenham and I enjoyed the atmosphere in the build-up. I was quite relaxed. It’s only when you’re on your way to the game and you see all the Munster and Gloucester fans decked out in jerseys and flags that it starts to become real.

“At least with Kingsholm, while it can be a bit of a cauldron in terms of atmosphere, it’s not a massive stadium so I probably felt a bit more comfortable because of that. As soon as I got a touch of the ball I felt fine. I just thought, ‘Yeah, I’m good to go here’. The nerves were gone at that point.”

As European debuts go, Hurley’s could only have been better if the try he got in for after skinning Lesley Vainikolo hadn’t been disallowed due to crossing by Denis Leamy. His most important defensive contribution was a potentially try-saving tackle on James Simpson-Daniel, before he helped to cap a memorable victory for Munster with a sublime grubber kick that set up Doug Howlett’s 62nd-minute try.

“I felt I managed to put in a fairly solid performance,” says Hurley, reflecting on a 16-3 win which set up a semi-final against Saracens. “I was quite happy with my defence — I made a number of tackles on guys who had broken through the line — and I got my hands on the ball a bit as well. The disallowed try was funny, looking back. I was sure I had scored. It was only when I turned around that I saw everyone else walking away.

“I was involved throughout the game, but to be able to play a part in Dougie’s try was the icing on the cake. I was obviously jumping for joy. Setting up the All Blacks’ top try scorer to score away from home in a European quarter-final, it was quite a moment. That’s definitely one of my fonder moments in a Munster jersey.”

With Hurley retaining his place in the starting line-up for a hard-fought 18-16 semi-final win over Saracens in Coventry, he wore the number 15 shirt again in Cardiff as Munster regained their status as European champions — an achievement they haven’t been able to emulate since — courtesy of a 16-13 defeat of Toulouse. It was the pinnacle of Hurley’s career, but the turning point undoubtedly came that Saturday in Gloucester.

“Your parents spend years trucking you around to games and supporting you,” he says. “It kind of feels like that’s the moment when you give something back to them. My dad obviously wasn’t planning to go to the game in Gloucester — he had no ticket or anything — but he jumped on a ferry at the last minute and somehow managed to make it.

“Every parent obviously wants the best for their kids, so that game in particular is probably the main highlight for me. To cap it off by winning the European Cup was incredible. It was definitely the launchpad for me as a professional rugby player.”

Although further European Cup success eluded Munster and Denis Hurley, he did go on to enjoy many more memorable days with the province. They were crowned Magners League champions in 2009 and ’11, while Hurley was also captain on several occasions — including in their defeat to Glasgow Warriors in the 2015 Guinness Pro12 final. However, his career came to a somewhat premature end following the conclusion of the 2015-16 season.

“I had it in my head that I’d ideally play until I was 34. I’m 33 now, so in essence I probably finished playing three years earlier than I’d hoped,” explains Hurley, who was capped by Ireland in a win against USA in May 2009. “It was just a season that didn’t go right for me injury-wise. There was also a quality player in Rory Scannell coming in underneath me. He offered a different type of game to what I could, and it probably suited where Munster were going a lot more.

“I think it was the week of the first pre-season game when I wrecked my ankle. I went to a surgeon to see whether I needed an operation on it. He said to leave it for six or eight weeks and see how it’s progressing. I seemed to be coming back fine then and was back playing.

Denis Hurley goes over but the try was disallowed Hurley's first-half try against Gloucester was disallowed. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Around Christmas time our little girl was born. I think it was that St Stephen’s Day or the day after when I was due to start [against Leinster]. Anthony Foley had a chat with me and said: ‘Listen, with the birth and everything, we’re going to start Rory instead’.

“Unbeknownst to me at the time, the week before against Leicester away was the last game I’d ever start. I think I came off the bench for two games after that. The same leg in which I had the ankle problem had started giving me problems in my lower calf. The next few months was a tough period. Very frustrating.

“I knew the end of my contract was coming up so I needed to be back playing. You’re trying to get these things right, but unfortunately it wasn’t, for whatever reason. We had started a young family and my contract was up. By the time I was fully fit again it was nearly August. I knew there was nothing for me at Munster.

“There were a couple of short-term offers as a medical joker — two months, three months, that kind of thing. I spoke to my wife and we needed to have some stability and a road map for what we were doing as a family. That just made the decision a lot easier — to just decide that I was finished playing and to move on. Maybe the body just wasn’t right. Obviously I’d love to still be playing, but that’s well gone now at this stage.”

Along with his wife Nessa and two-year-old daughter Emie-Rose, Hurley recently returned to Cork after spending a year in Dubai, where he worked with a sports academy and assisted with coaching for the Dubai Exiles rugby team.

He says: “There are some points of regret when I look back. I was kind of in that in-between area where what I had wasn’t fully defined as a career-ending injury, but it wasn’t coming good enough to have me fully fit for another season or two. In that sense I look back and wonder what I could have done differently to get it right.

Denis Hurley and Anthony Foley Hurley receiving Munster's young player of the year award from Anthony Foley in 2008. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m sure I could go and play a season of club rugby now and I’d probably be fine. Of course I’d love to have finished up on my own terms, knowing when my last start and last appearance was going to be, but unfortunately it was out of my hands. It would have been nice to have had that moment to say goodbye, but it’s not always to be.

“I still look back on a lot of positive memories. I had some ups and downs throughout my career but they were great experiences to have, and they’re experiences I’m very grateful for. But obviously when I reflect, 2008 stands out as being a bit special.”

There may have been no fairytale ending for Denis Hurley, but he could hardly have dreamt of a better way to start.

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