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'Retirement is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced'

Former Munster wing Johne Murphy is moving on with his coaching and business life.

RETIRING FROM PROFESSIONAL sport can be a frightening and even depressing process for many athletes, but others appear to take the shift in their stride.

Former Munster, Leicester and Ireland A international Johne Murphy says he has days where he looks back with a hint of regret, but in the main he’s too busy embracing his new life.

Johne Murphy Murphy has moved on swiftly from his playing days. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Murphy’s retirement from rugby was a little different to others’, as he opted to hang up his playing boots at the relatively young age of 30 and with offers from several clubs on the table.

His time with Munster was at an end, but Murphy had fought his way back to fitness after an injury-stunted 2014/15 season and had concrete options to continue playing in France and England.

Instead, he called it a day in August of last year and just eight months later feels he made the right call. Having realistic avenues for life after playing was, of course, essential to Murphy’s decision.

He had been exploring the possibility of moving into coaching even while still a pro and had helped out at his home club, Naas RFC, on an advisory basis as he started to earn his coaching badges with the IRFU.

Soon after his retirement, Murphy was announced as a player/coach at Naas and has helped the club to the top of Division 2A of the Ulster Bank League this season. The Kildare men will be playing Division 1 rugby in 2016/17.

Concurrently, Murphy has been assistant coach to the Senior Cup team in St. Mary’s College in Dublin, also coaching the school’s transition year students. He’s moving on to his Stage 4 head coaching badge this year too, as his fledging life as a coach gathers speed.

“At the end of last year, I could have continued on playing, but the way it finished – a season with injuries, a stop-start season – I didn’t really enjoy it,” says Murphy when reflecting on last year’s decision to retire.

Johne Murphy Murphy is coaching with St. Mary's. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“I love the game and it’s given me what I’ve got out of life so far. I felt I would have been in danger of continuing somewhere else that mightn’t have suited me. I felt that if I had another season I didn’t enjoy, I could have fallen out of love with the game.

“This year has renewed my passion for it and it’s a time when rugby is getting a small bit of flak. Our game is under a small bit of threat with the concussion side, but I’ll defend it and I want to be part of building it back up, to pass on what I’ve learned from the different coaches I’ve worked with.”

Unsurprisingly, Murphy’s viewpoint on some of his former coaches’ decisions has changed with his increased awareness of what goes into the job.

“If I knew then what I know now in terms of coaching and the preparation that goes in, there’s probably a few moments in my career where I wouldn’t have pushed coaches as far as I did,” says the now 31-year-old Rathangan native.

“I always respected my coaches but I’ve got a renewed sense of respect for the amount of effort that goes in behind the scenes and the thought that goes into every single selection process. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the coaching.”

Another strand of Murphy’s desire to give something back to the sport after his playing career is his co-ownership of the Kildare-based rugbycamps.ie and the new PSA Academies, for which he has partnered up with ex-France coach Philippe Saint-André.

Rugbycamps.ie runs out of the RACE academy – essentially a training centre for jockeys – in Kildare town, where the excellent facilities allow Murphy and his partner Johan Taylor to deliver bespoke rugby camps to players, teams and coaches of all levels.

Taylor is a former head coach of the Sri Lanka national team, with whom he won two Asian Championships, and knew Murphy through their shared association with Naas RFC.

Johne Murphy Murphy has been branching into the world of media with Newstalk too. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster’s Dan van Zyl, an ex-Springbok who has long been a coaching influence in Ireland, helped Murphy and Taylor to formulate the idea for rugbycamps.ie, which launched when Murphy retired last summer.

Murphy says they offer one-, two- or three-day rugby camps for teams looking to kick-start their pre-season or boost their campaigns mid-season, stressing that the entire programme is dictated by each group’s needs.

Marcus Horan and Fiona Coghlan have delivered scrummaging elements of camps, while Murphy has also called on the expertise of former Munster teammates Niall Ronan and Damien Varley, and says there is a wide range of former and current pros he can call on.

Jim Kielty delivers the strength and conditioning components of the camps, while there is an increasing interest in what Murphy and Taylor call the ‘team enhancement’ portion of rugbycamps.ie, in which they build the togetherness of groups.

“There are other places you can go for this kind of stuff, but it can be exclusive,” says Murphy. “We cater for everyone’s individual needs. So any club that wants to come in the pre-season, or if there’s a break in the middle of the season, they can come to us and we can provide different things, a tailor-made programme for them.

“We have sports psychologists onboard, we have nutrition partners, everything, but it comes down to cost. If they can’t afford our full-on package, that’s fine. We’ll devise a programme that suits them and they will get a huge amount out of it.

“We’ve got army team building guys who can deliver a programme for kids of ages seven up to adults. You can have a mix of fitness, specific rugby skills and critical thinking or a pure team building day, there’s so much we can do.”

Murphy also gets a further opportunity to showcase his coaching with both rugbycamps.ie and PSA Academies in the stunning location of Tignes, nestled in the French Alps.

Joe Schmidt with Serge Blanco and Philippe Saint-Andre Murphy has linked up with Saint-André. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The one-time Leicester back underlines that he is still developing his own philosophy on how the game should be coached and learned, but he is already firm in the belief that the core rugby skills, and good decision-making, are key.

Rob Penney was an influence on his way of thinking with his Canterbury approach at Munster; one that asked forwards to handle as much as backs, and pushed players to make good decisions about identifying and exploiting space.

“My personal belief is that sometimes we’re a small bit too reliant on structure in Ireland and that there’s not enough value given to the core skills, and when to run the ball,” says Murphy. “You have to remember that when kids play, they pick up the ball because they enjoy playing the game.

“It’s not necessarily about playing with structure and, say, in St. Mary’s this year we would have brought in a similar style to how Rob coached at Munster. That’s purely because I think it’s a fantastic way for kids to learn, to see space, then to understand how to get there and when to take the space.

“You can take it by running there, by kicking the ball there; it’s a different sense of how to learn and that’s a big, big thing in Irish rugby.

“To be fair, the Irish provinces have tried to move forward. Connacht have shown what it is like to move the ball well and have the accuracy to move it. From my point of view as a coach, it’s about developing players so that they can see space, recognise how to move it there and take it.

“I believe you need to give them the attributes to be able to do that. I’d be a big believer in a lot less structure, but teaching guys how to play rugby with their heads up.”

The PSA Academies in France will give Murphy another opportunity to practice what he preaches when the programme gets underway in the world-class facilities at Tignes this summer.

Johne Murphy Murphy on the Emerging Ireland tour in 2014. Source: FFR.RO/INPHO

Catering for young players of all nationalities from the ages of 10 up to 18, Saint-André will lead a programme aimed at developing those youngsters across the wide range of skills they need to excel in rugby.

Saint-André – who coached against Murphy and Leicester in his time with Sale Sharks – will be in Kildare this Saturday for a PSA Academies Open Day at rugbycamps.ie’s base in order to give Irish players a taster of what they could get from a full camp in Tignes.

Murphy, Saint-André and Taylor will run a full day of rugby and social activities from 9am in the morning, and expect up to 100 young players to be involved.

“I’d love to be able to get these camps off the ground and impart the knowledge myself and anyone else involved has,” says Murphy of his business ventures.

“To pass on their knowledge is massive for me. With Philippe, he’s got an incredible passion for the game even after a tough last two years with France. For him this is something new and he’s back at grassroots and wants to pass on his love of the game. Like me, it gave him everything in his life.”

Looking backwards for just a minute or two, Murphy picks out Leicester’s 2009 win over South Africa at Welford Road and Munster’s victory against Australia at Thomond Park in 2010 as two highlights of his playing days.

A Magners League title and Ronan O’Gara’s drop goal to beat Northampton after 41 phases in 2011 also earn mentions, while Murphy jokes that he can’t go into detail on some of the “moments off the pitch” that he enjoyed.

Leaving behind the playing days was a tough decision for Murphy, but he is excited by the opportunities ahead of him, either potentially as a professional coach or through the growth of his new business interests in the coming years.

Johne Murphy and Donncha O'Callaghan Murphy loved his Munster days but is excited by the future. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I spoke to a couple of guys that have retired or are thinking about it in the next couple of years,” says Murphy, “and I always say that retirement is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced.

“One of my closest friends told me that he felt, personally, I was making the wrong decision last year. But then he said, ‘You’ve got to get busy making it the right decision.’ That’s what I’ve tried to do, I’ve embraced it and I’ve enjoyed it so far.

“There’s obviously days when I look back and feel I’d like to be out there playing. You look at the likes of Tony McCoy and he says he’d like to have one more go at something. Everyone does that, it’s part of retiring from professional sport. It’s not something to be feared, you have to embrace it.”

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Murray Kinsella

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