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'I don’t care what it looks like, a trophy is what this squad needs'

Jordi Murphy lays out his idea of a successful season for Ulster, who will be greatly boosted by the arrival of Duane Vermeulen.

Jordi Murphy of Ulster.
Jordi Murphy of Ulster.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT MAY BE coming up to six months since it happened, but Ulster are still haunted by the what ifs from their Welford Road capitulation in last year’s Challenge Cup semi-final.

Some are in regard to things they could have controlled, such as what if they had held out longer than the 14 second-half minutes it took Leicester to negate their 11-point lead? Others were things beyond their grasp, like what if Nemani Nadolo had been sanctioned when his knee connected with John Cooney’s head?

But no matter how it shakes out, nearly six months on the outcome is still the same. Ulster missed out on a glorious opportunity to end a 16-year wait for a major trophy with their last-four elimination in a competition where they were widely regarded to be the best side left alive.

Some would call it a failure that they didn’t end up with silverware back in the Kingspan Stadium trophy cabinet. Others, such as flanker Jordi Murphy, would counter by saying the prime disappointment was not their ultimate failure to win the tournament, but their inability to close out what looked to be a fairly comfortable half-time lead at the time in an important knockout game.

“The way we as a group fell short was very disappointing, to switch off in a game when you feel like you’re in control, you just can’t do that against top teams in Europe. That’s what we did in Leicester and we paid the price,” points out the former Ireland international.

That was exacerbated by a lack of play-off action in both the Pro14, due to the knockouts being slimmed down to just the final, and the Rainbow Cup, which was an abject disaster for the province in terms of results. In previous seasons they could at least point to their continued advancing through the rounds as progress – last year they could not.

“To know you weren’t in with a chance of playing in a league final either was very disappointing. But it was one of those things and is in the past now,” he insists.

“We’ve obviously got to learn but we don’t always have to look back, we look forward. And I think going forward we have to learn the lessons from those types of games, just knowing that you have to put in 80-minute performances in these big games and especially the knockouts. It’s in the name, knockout, you don’t have a second chance.

“One of the things we’ve been doing pre-season is that if Plan A isn’t working, if Plan B isn’t working, maybe have a Plan C or someone needs to put their hand up and say ‘right, something needs to change for us to move forward’.

“I think, myself included, a couple of the senior guys just didn’t do that last year against Leicester away. So to take anything away from it is to make sure that we identify problems like that as they’re unfolding instead of when it’s too late.”

That, of course, leads nicely onto the upcoming United Rugby Championship season – which begins on Friday night when Ulster host Glasgow Warriors – and the inevitable question of just how much ground Dan McFarland’s side have made up to Leinster, the seemingly ever-present pace-setters.

It’s a well-worn question at the start of every campaign, particularly with Ulster undeniably edging gradually closer to their southern rivals with each passing year, but the proof is in the pudding – they still don’t have the silverware to reflect the progression that the players insist they are making.

That’s why Murphy admits now is the time for them to start basing their success on their own merits rather than where they stack up compared to his former employers.

When asked what would constitute a good season, the 30-year-old, who is still facing a couple more weeks on the sidelines due to a foot injury, says: “I’m going to put it out there: a trophy. I don’t care what it looks like, a trophy is what this squad needs.

“From the coaching ticket down to every single player we’ve put in a lot of hard work, but at the end of the day you’re judged by what you bring home at the end of the season. A trophy in any which way, shape or form is what our goal is.

“Dan has never hidden away from the fact that he wants us to be consistently competing for championships. I felt like we were pretty close last year and it was pretty gut-wrenching to fall short, albeit in the semi-final stage with still a final to play. But to feel that you could have been there and that you probably should have been there and not done it was unbelievably disappointing.

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“Hopefully the boys will be able to look forward and see what is achievable as a group and for me that’s definitely some form of silverware.”

On Thursday, Ulster made a big statement to suggest they are serious about bringing a trophy back to Belfast by shocking the rugby world by bringing in World Cup-winning Springbok No.8 Duane Vermeulen on a two-year deal to more than amply replace the outgoing Marcell Coetzee.

While the 35-year-old won’t link up with his new side until December after the autumn internationals, just the knowledge that his arrival is in the offing will be a shot in the arm to a team that perhaps needs that one spark to put them over the edge in terms of finally bridging the gap between also-rans and champions.

“It’s great, a brilliant addition for us. He’s a world class player and his CV speaks for itself, World Cup winner too. He has really made his mark so to be able to get someone with those talents is really exciting for us,” says an excited Murphy.

“It’s going to be great, not just on the pitch but off the pitch with all his experience. He makes his mark wherever he goes and I’m sure he will (when he gets here.) It’s just really exciting to have him on board. I’m looking forward to seeing him when he’s finished up with South Africa.

“His leadership qualities speak for themselves. You’ve seen the way he’s played for South Africa and any team he’s played for over the years, he seems to be the go-to guy, so it’s really an exciting prospect to have him with us.”

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