IT WAS SUPPOSED to leave a legacy — it might still yet — but a tournament which promised so much quickly turned pernicious and poisonous, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
The fallout was as expected, but the ripple effect continues.
Jenny Murphy, one of the pillars of the team, and poster girls for the game in this country, has fallen out of love with the sport. Disillusioned, deterred and discouraged by the adversity on the field and the calamitous goings on off it.
It has all taken its toll, all contributing to a complete erosion of motivation and enthusiasm. A draining, and deflating, World Cup experience will do that to you.
Murphy needs a break, she needed to get away from that environment, that dressing room. That in itself is the most damning indictment of what happened last summer. One of Ireland’s foremost, and most important, players making herself unavailable for selection.
And not even a change of management and the promise of a fresh start, a new era could convince her otherwise. There was no way Murphy could pick herself off the canvas to go again straight away. To reset back to zero and do it all again.
Time can act as a healer, and the pain of failure is subsiding as the months pass, but it all still hurts. A home World Cup was supposed to be the highlight for this generation of players, so when it all came crashing down around them in front of family and friends and an expectant nation — dreams dashed and hopes quashed — it was tough to take.
“It still sucks,” Murphy admits, briefly re-opening those deep wounds from last August.
Shortly after their sorry campaign ended with defeat to Wales in Belfast, members of the squad headed to Las Vegas for Ruth O’Reilly’s hen party. It was then, after a cycle which had seen Murphy’s life revolve around getting fit for the World Cup and then her every waking moment preparing for a tournament like no other, could she relax. And tune out. And realise it was time to move on.
“I love playing for Ireland, but you have to really want to be there,” she says. “You need to be 100% committed.”
And that’s not what she could promise to herself, her team-mates or to new head coach Adam Griggs.
That’s not fair. I would feel like I would be taking up a space for someone else who would kill for that spot. I’ve been playing since 2012 and I just needed a refresher to recharge the batteries. I guess to fall back in love with the game.”
But for Murphy, it is not all about the game anymore.
After starring at the 2014 World Cup in France, when Ireland famously defeated New Zealand to advance to the semi-finals, she spent an extended period on the sideline and was in a race to be fully fit for last summer’s tournament. It became the be-all and end-all.
“Anytime I got a new calendar, that — World Cup, August 2017 — would be the first thing that would go in it.”
Murphy returned in time for last year’s Six Nations to feature for Ireland as they pushed England to the wire. Everything was going to plan. All the right noises were coming from the camp, but it soon became obvious that all was not right, culminating in O’Reilly’s remarkable interview which revealed the underlying frictions within the camp and the systematic flaws which hampered preparations and completely undermined Tom Tierney as the leader of his group.
“We underperformed, didn’t play nice rugby,” Murphy admits. “We let ourselves and the jersey down. It was just deflating and I just couldn’t find the motivation to come back.
“Then as well as that, there was the slog of…we’re entirely amateur and I needed to look at myself going forward. I didn’t want to live like a student and keep doing this.
“I want to do everything 100%, but I also need to mind myself.”
Murphy isn’t the only one who had to look towards the future. Retirements were inevitable, and plentiful. Then Sophie Spence — a World Rugby Player of the Year nominee three short years ago — was told she wasn’t in the Six Nations squad.
Spence yesterday admitted the senior players should have acted before the tournament. To take a stand and make their voices heard. It might have changed things, it might have helped avoid the disaster which unfolded.
“There are a lot of things we could have done better,” Murphy says. “To end with two disappointing defeats, that will always weigh you down. When you think of 2017 now, it’s eighth place which is not what we had envisaged at all.”
You can tell it still hurts. It’s still raw.
She pauses, looks at the ceiling, and then continues.
“Hindsight is a great thing. At the time we did what we thought was best. Maybe looking back on it we could have done something differently but we were just focused on the games and what we needed to implement our game plans.
“We weren’t really thinking, we were just taking each game as it came. It was Australia up first and there was a level of excitement and stuff and as the tournament got closer, it wasn’t that we didn’t have time to fix stuff but we thought we’d be able to…we thought we’d be able to… do better than we did.
I know that’s not the clearest of answers. But we did genuinely, as players, have chats and discuss it. But we did what was right at the time. Maybe we could have made some better decisions.”
It was a difficult time, wasn’t it?
You sound weary of it all?
“Weary is maybe too strong a word, but it was just disappointing. Trying to motivate yourself to get back after…”
As much as Murphy lacked the drive to get back on the horse, her decision was also influenced by the fact she wanted to move on with her life. To get a job that interested her and was sustainable for the future.
When a chance conversation with the founders of a new start-up company called Pep Talk piqued her interest, she was taken on in a role which involves ‘a little bit of everything’, including marketing and social media work.
By that stage, Murphy was firm in her decision to step away from the national team for the 2018 season and her mind was made up before the IRFU’s move to advertise the head coach vacancy on a part-time basis.
“It was disappointing,” she says. “We want to stay ahead of the curve so when you don’t see that happening, it’s quite frustrating.”
When Griggs, who is also the Leinster women’s coach, was appointed before Christmas he held discussions with Murphy about her international future. He tried his best to persuade her to commit for the Six Nations.
“I had already said ‘no, I’m making the right decision for me.’
“Hopefully me stepping away for a year and focusing on other things, I’ll come back into the rugby fold if they’ll have me and be better for the team in the long run.”
Griggs had twisted Murphy’s arm to get her to play in the inter-pros last month but having suffered a second head injury in the space of a few months during a club game for Old Belvedere, she was stood down with concussion.
That’s the last game of rugby the Leinster centre has played, but Murphy insists she hasn’t slammed the door shut behind her. This is, she says, a sabbatical, rather than a permanent decision to step away and pull the curtain on her international career.
She is keen to explore new opportunities, including the possibility of extending her sporting prowess into the boxing ring having already mixed rugby with Gaelic football and soccer in her formative years.
“I want to explore other sports for the year,” Murphy explains. “Try something different and hopefully if I’m playing well enough next year, I’ll put my hand up for selection again.
“I might go back to GAA, but I was maybe looking at boxing or something like that.
“In the back of my head, it’s always, ‘will this help my rugby end goal?’ And I think it would. I have to start now but I’m still focused on the club [Old Belvedere] at the moment.
“My uncle would be big into boxing. He’s based in Ballymore Eustace. They’ve got good training down there but I think the commute might be a bit too much for me so I’ll look for a place around Dublin.”
The real test is when the Six Nations starts.
“Yeah, I’ll go to support the girls but I’m content with where I am. I know I’ve made the right decision.
“Of course, it will be a bit different. When I see the girls play I will definitely be envious of them playing on the pitch.”
So will we see you out there in a green jersey again?
“I hope so, I really hope so. If I’m fit enough and I’m playing good rugby I’ll put my hand up for selection.
“I’m not ready to retire just yet.”
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