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‘I would struggle to watch the 2008 Heineken Cup final again – I’d just cringe’

What is it like to play in a Champions Cup final? And what sort of influence does Ronan O’Gara have on a team? Munster’s 2008 Heineken Cup winner Denis Hurley opens the dressing room door.

Denis Hurley, Munster cult-hero.
Denis Hurley, Munster cult-hero.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

THE BEST DAY of Denis Hurley’s career threatened to be the worst.

Never mind the outcome, the stinging tears bursting out of hard men’s eyes, the medal dangling round the neck, the whoops and cheers drowning out the click-click-click of studs on a dressing-room floor.

Never mind the result, a 16-13 victory over Toulouse, or the consoling words from those who recognised a player suffering angst. Never mind that three months earlier he was playing for Cork Con in front of 100 people in Temple Hill and now on a stage watched by 74,500 pairs of eyes.

Never mind that he had won a Heineken Cup final on just his third appearance in the competition – because this wasn’t about the result; this wasn’t about the medal; this wasn’t about anything except something deeply personal: his pride.

“Leading into that 2008 final, I was thinking, I can do this, there is no problem here,” Hurley said of that seminal day. “Yes, there were nerves but you expect that. It was this weight that I felt. I’d been one of those Munster fans who’d travelled to away matches in Europe so I knew what it meant to them, knew what it cost.

“So on the morning of that ’08 final, I had that little voice in my head saying, ‘you need to make things go well here’.”

They did and they didn’t. Full backs vary in style. If Simon Zebo offers you dessert then Hurley served up meat-and-potatoes. He was never flashy but always steady, dependable, tactically smart. He could marshal the backfield, make his tackles and kick subtle grubbers like the one that led to Doug Howlett scoring a crucial try in that year’s Heineken Cup quarter-final.

But until that ’08 final, he’d never been exposed to a barrage of high balls. Toulouse introduced him to the pleasure. “Nothing prepares you for the vastness of the stadium,” he says, “or their kicking, with (Yannick) Jauzion coming straight up on top of me. I was running at the ball too early — I was a sitting duck for him.

“Do you know what it was like? It was like sitting a Leaving Cert exam where you haven’t studied and suddenly you are wondering where are you going to find the answers. For a few years I was trying to patch up that skill (of catching high balls). I guess I got the yips.”

That issue manifested itself later that summer in a Churchill Cup game against England when a Garryowen brought back recollections of Toulouse’s bombing campaign. “I can vividly remember the ball in the air and the only thing going through my mind was ‘you can’t drop this now, everyone is watching you. You have to prove to everyone that this is not a weakness’. That created a fear.”

There’s a life lesson in this story, one the 30 La Rochelle and Toulouse players starting today’s Champions Cup final should absorb. “I know rugby is a cut-throat industry but it’s still a game,” says Hurley. “When I look back on my career now – five years after retiring – I can see that playing with fear knocked so much fun out of it for me.”

It’s a lingering regret because it’s time he can never reclaim. “I remember what Ian Dowling said about ‘06, that he didn’t enjoy that year’s (Heineken Cup) final. Here was me repeating that. After the game all I had was relief, that we’d done it. The fact is no one in that dressing room even cared how I played. The job was done. We had won silverware; we were holding it in our hands.

denis-hurley-with-shaun-payne-in-the-changing-room-with-the-heineken-cup-trophy Hurley and Shaun Payne after the '08 final Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“As for me, honestly, I would struggle to watch that game back now. I’d just cringe at some of the contributions I made.”

**

Being tough on themselves was a default setting in that Munster team. They bore the scars of lost finals in 2000 and 2002 as well as the semi-final injustices of 2001, 2003 and 2004, storing the anger, then unleashing it on match day, trampling over teams, sending thank-you cards later.

Fester, the Claw, Gallimh, the Bull, Axel, Rog, Paulie, their nicknames could have doubled up as extras in The Sopranos – and at times you felt they ran rugby the way Tony Soprano ran New Jersey, lining their opponents up, knocking them to the floor.

“What really sums it up for me was in the 2008 semi-final against Saracens,” says Hurley. “We were down with about 10 minutes to go but you had that feeling that there was absolutely no one on the field who felt we’d lose.

“I was a late plug in to that unit but they made it easy for me to hook up. I didn’t feel pressure to be anything other than myself.”

O’Gara – back in a European Cup final today after a 13-year gap from his last appearance – was one of Hurley’s protectors, an influential figure then, even more so now.

ronan-ogara O'Gara at Twickenham yesterday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The common comment from Rog was trust. Trust what the game-plan is; trust one another. In team meetings he’d remind us we had a choice, either do your own individual thing or do what is expected of you as a team player. That was a big thing. We always believed in the plan, no matter what the situation.

“That was the culture that had been created. We’d have a laugh at some of Deccie’s (head coach Declan Kidney’s) sayings but the simplicity of his message got through to us.”

One day it didn’t. By now Kidney was head coach of Ireland, O’Gara still his student, just as he had been at school, later with Irish underage sides, then with Munster.

“From the moment I first got into the Munster set-up, it was always clear that Rog had such an ingrained belief in how things should be done. Players wanted clarity and if it wasn’t there then there was no better man than Rog to call out a coach.

“Like there was this day with Ireland, Deccie talking about an exit. Rog pulled him up. ‘Deccie, what exactly are you trying to say here?’”

Hurley couldn’t believe someone was talking to Kidney like that – but the grand slam winning coach didn’t lack self-awareness, knew his own limitations, and more to the point, knew how O’Gara was wired. “Deccie may not be the best coach in the world but as a director of rugby, a man manager, he is exceptional. Rog wanted a direct answer because that’s Rog. In that instance, his question was simple: ‘what do you want us to do?’ In fairness to Rog, all he ever looked for was everyone to be on the same page.

“And that’s the message he is probably drilling into the guys at La Rochelle ahead of today’s final. You need that because rugby can be over complicated at professional level. You have to believe in what you are doing as a coach, that your plan will be effective, that it’ll excite players.”

**

Clarity is the one thing Hurley didn’t have at the end of his career. He had finished a year earlier than planned, a calf injury thieving him of the last few months of his youth.

That’s the thing with sports stars. They achieve their goals when most people are only setting out on theirs, outsiders expecting them to reflect on the old days long before they are even old. Hurley was 32 when he began his descent from the mountain top in 2016 and the thought of arriving back at base camp filled him with dread. “Internally I felt pressure over my identity and when I was told my contract wasn’t going to be renewed, the pressure valve intensified,” he says. “I realised I needed to get away because I knew the question that would come: ‘What are you going to do with yourself, boy?’”

denis-hurley-goes-off-injured Hurley goes off injured - within a year he had to retire. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Dubai seemed as good a place as any to escape to. “I was a nobody arriving there. That had its own pressure. I had to get a CV together.” At first he worked in sportswear distribution; then as a project manager in a sports academy. Time passed. A job came up in Rugby Players Ireland as their Operations Manager.

He was home.

Here more work came his way. He’s coaching at Sunday’s Well, the purity of the amateur game reminding him of the five-year-old who pitched up at Navan Rugby club with nothing but a pair of boots on his feet and a dream in his head. Even then his identity was wrapped up in rugby, his father – Gerry – having been a sub when Munster beat the All Blacks in ’78. “Growing up in Kells, they dubbed us the rugby family from Cork.”

It was inevitable he’d end up back there, settling in UCC, where he won an Irish Under 20 title alongside Donncha Ryan. Through the Munster sub-academy, he got his first pro contract in 2006 and was still earning the princely sum of €15,000-a-year when Kidney unexpectedly picked him ahead of Shaun Payne for a Heineken Cup quarter-final.

This was Gloucester, April 2008. Within two months he was a Heineken Cup winner and 12 months after that he was picking up his first Ireland cap. There wouldn’t be a second.

There would be more medals, though, a Celtic League in 2009, another in 2011 before the Munster drought began. “The 2011 one I didn’t really enjoy because I felt I should have been involved more; but the coach at the time (Tony McGahan) didn’t like the way I was playing. You have that in your career, some coaches really like what you do, others don’t. It is a very personal thing.”

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Whenever a coach does flutter his eyelids, a player will always fall for the charm, the one-liners; the promises of devotion. But unless you are an O’Gara, an O’Connell or an O’Driscoll, you’ll always end up stranded at the aisle with confetti in your hair and the guests looking on.

Such fickleness has broken many a player’s heart. But Hurley was able to overcome the rejections and cope with the harshness of the industry, where life was a series of two-year and 12-month contracts. “I changed position three times in my career; starting as a full back, moving to the wing, ending up as a 12. That was to keep myself in a job, essentially. It was my way of saying to coaches, ‘I’m telling you I can do this, just give me a chance’. That is where the satisfaction comes from. It is not as if I was set up for life in terms of finance from rugby, far from it, I need a nine-to-five from now until I am 65.”

Still by digging in and adapting throughout his rugby career, he was more prepared for this sporting afterlife. The post-final yips from ‘08, he fought those. He played his first game for Munster in 2006, his last 10 years later. You don’t last a decade in pro rugby unless you’re a fighter.

Consistency, Shakespeare wrote, is a jewel. He’d have liked Hurley but mightn’t have been as fond of Munster after 2011, when the trophies dried up and the pictures of winning teams became dog-eared and yellow.

“I see things that could have been done better,” he says of the 2011-16 years. “I’m talking about myself first, but also players, management, the organisation.

“Like, as an example, Rob Penney was a breath of fresh air when he came in. Some guys didn’t enjoy playing under him but the reality was that Munster had been playing a brand of rugby that got them to a certain point. But the evolution of any professional sport is that the game starts to change.

rob-penney-and-denis-hurley Hurley with Rob Penney in 2013. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We started to evolve during that period. Losing Rob, we lost that evolution. Pat Lam, it wasn’t until his third year in Galway that it happened for him at Connacht; I just wonder could Munster have adapted in year three of Rob’s time.”

He isn’t the only person who thinks back to that sliding-doors moment. As Penney’s reign unfolded, a cohort of the ’06 and ’08 teams started to grow old. One by one they fell away, Alan Quinlan, John Hayes and Ian Dowling retiring in 2011, Denis Leamy, David Wallace, Lifeimi Mafi and Jerry Flannery moving on in 2012, Doug Howlett, Marcus Horan and O’Gara in 2013, O’Connell in 2015.

On the field, they continued to challenge, getting to European semi-finals in ’13 and ’14 before Hurley captained the side that lost the 2015 Pro12 final to Glasgow. “Our biggest downfall was that we didn’t have a plan B that day.”

They still don’t.

Nonetheless, he likes that young players are emerging again.

“Munster’s identity is based around the underdogs tag in terms of the fact we do not have a massive population, we are over achievers. Whenever we are written off, that is the moment you almost feel, we can do something here. Like, I remember a Heineken Cup pool game, 2009 I think it was, and it looked as if we were out of it, heading away to Perpignan.

“But something stirred in us that day. The giddiness of our supporters, their sense of hope, you’d hit off that. It’d inspire you. I remember David Wallace pulling at guys shirts with his fingertips, just as they were about to make line-breaks. We won with a bonus point because we refused to give in. That’s Munster, that homegrown, unified, never-give-up spirit. We can never lose that.”

His job spec prevents him commenting on the current Munster set-up but he likes the idea of local kids getting a crack at it. In the meantime there’s work to do. Covid has struck, budgets are being cut and in the next month players throughout the four provinces will be cut. “We could be looking at guys with families and mortgages being let go. It’s a tough business.”

He knows. He had to find out the hard way, walking away from the sport with a pain in both his calf and his heart. But time heals. Now he can look at everything he won, a Heineken Cup, an Ireland cap, two Pro14s and entry to two elite clubs. He is one of 1124 Irishmen to have played for his country; one of only 94 to have won a Heineken Cup.

That day in 2008 – he now realises – was an achievement not a disappointment.

Denis Hurley is promoting #TheBigRugbyRun which aims to raise funds for Tackle Your Feelings Ireland’s initiatives in the rugby community. To support this initiative go to  https://www.psaacademies.com/thebigrugbyrun/

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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