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'We hope to see players coming out of the academies with a higher skill level'

The Ireland skills coach Richie Murphy guides us through his journey into the national team set-up.

WHILE THE REST of us might watch rugby games waiting for the big moments – the tries, the hits, the controversies – Richie Murphy pores over every minor detail.

Things like ball placement on the tee before a player kicks at goal.

Jonathan Sexton and kicking coach Richie Murphy Murphy with Ireland out-half Johnny Sexton. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s one area where the Ireland skills coach believes young players can benefit from guidance and while it’s a minute detail, it can affect the outcome of major games.

Murphy has been a member of the Ireland staff since Joe Schmidt took on the head coaching role, having worked with the Kiwi at Leinster throughout the province’s period of astonishing success.

He continued to combine his Leinster and Ireland roles in recent years, before moving permanently into the IRFU job at the beginning of this season, relinquishing his duties with the eastern province.

Murphy is one of Schmidt’s most trusted confidantes and his day-to-day role with Ireland extends well beyond what the job title of ‘skills coach’ would suggest.

When England launch their attack at Ireland in Twickenham today, the visitors are likely to recognise many of the elements they must defend against. Murphy’s diligent analysis work on Eddie Jones’ men is one of the reasons for that.

My role on a Tuesday and a Thursday with the team sessions is to take the opposition team, the red team for instance, and get them to produce stuff we would see England playing at the weekend,” explains Murphy.

“We’d look at some of their set-plays and how they’re trying to play the game and then replicate that against our [starting] team. Our team has always prepared pretty well in that area.”

As well as running that portion of Ireland’s weekly training schedule, Murphy focuses on improving the skill levels of Schmidt’s players as much as the narrow windows of preparation allow.

Lengthy handling sessions are a pipe dream in a Test match week, given the need to prepare tactically, meaning Murphy must be clincial with the time he does get to improve Ireland’s individual skill levels. Video work is part of the picture.

Richie Murphy Murphy loves his years with Leinster. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“At different times, we get little skills blocks and we might focus in on certain skills that each player needs to improve,” says the former Clontarf out-half. “We show footage of where our passing has let us down, say, or where little bits of detail have been missed.

“The players know the areas in their game they have a weakness in and we try to make sure that, as part of their warm-ups before training, they focus on those areas. So as well as getting ready to train, we would always look to have a skill element involved in that.”

Murphy has only recently signed a new two-year contract with the IRFU that will see him continue as national team skills coach, but that deal until 2018 also involves a second job title of ‘national academy coach’.

Those who have been bemoaning the relative lack of skill in Irish rugby following last year’s World Cup will certainly be enthusiastic about Murphy’s plans for this important position.

While he stresses that the four provincial academies are doing superb work in producing young players for the professional game, Murphy acknowledges that things can always get better.

He wants Irish players to be outstanding in their skill levels from a young age, leading to world-class professional players further down the line.

Part of my job when I’m not with the Ireland team is to link in with the academies in the four provinces,” says Murphy. “What we’re trying to do is improve things that we find in the senior game that we think are lacking in those young players coming up.

“So with individual skill levels, we’re going to help the academies – who are doing a great job as it is – to try and feed back down some information, and we hope to see players coming out of the academies into senior level with a higher skill level.”

The new programme will eventually address a vast range of skills from tackling to breakdown work to passing to high-ball fielding and much, much more. The intention is that best practice in these areas is established, so young players are being intelligently coached to be far more proficient in the basic skills.

As an example, Murphy outlines a place-kicking module he is currently working on that will involve videos, practical drills, warm-ups and more resources for coaches to draw on and players to learn from.

Richie Murphy Murphy works closely with Ireland's kickers. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We hope it will feed all the way down to the club game, where players are learning the skills from a young age and with good coaching. Most people learn kicking from watching people on television and trying to copy them.

“We want to develop that and get them to understand the different technical elements built into making a good kicker.

“We could be looking at the mental habits that guys have for their pre-kick routine, then the tactical stuff like getting good alignment and being aware of body shape, technical things like getting good foot placement, even going back to how to set the ball up properly on the tee, because it’s amazing when you see that lots of young guys have the ball set up wrong.

“They’re things we have to do over the next number of years and we’re hoping to break into that area of trying to develop the kicking game and the skill level of the young players coming up.”

Murphy is highly-regarded in the area of kicking and remains a cult hero of the All-Ireland League for his prowess at out-half both in terms of amassing points and running games during his years with Greystones, Clontarf, Carlow and Old Belvedere.

His rugby playing days began at Presentation College, Bray, the school he guided to a famous Leinster Schools Junior Cup success in 1990, kicking all of their points in the final.

He came out of secondary education at a time when the game was slowly lurching towards professionalism, moving into the senior set-up at Greystones for four years and then taking an important rugby-playing break in Australia at the age of 23.

Murphy spent a season with the University of Queensland, where he coincidentally featured alongside Barry Everitt, who went on to play for Munster, London Irish and Northampton.

“From a backs’ point of view, going to Australia was a very educational thing to do,” says Murphy. One highlight was beating a touring English side in a University of Queensland backline that included himself, Everitt and two of their Irish housemates.

“We won well and they made a comment after the game about how great it was to see an Australian backline playing like that, but it was four Irish boys in truth.”

Murphy returned to Ireland having had his “eyes opened to the game,” joined Clontarf for a highly-prolific spell and forced his way into the Leinster set-up for the 1998/99 season.

Richie Murphy 12/11/2006 Murphy celebrates an Old Belvedere win against former club Clontarf in 2006. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Alan McGowan began that campaign as first-choice out-half – this was a time when Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Horgan were establishing themselves – but Murphy started at out-half for a 9-3 Heineken Cup win over Bordeaux-Bégles in October, kicking three penalties.

He held his place for the next European game against Stade Français, but it was an altogether more difficult experience.

“I started against Stade in Paris and we got killed, well beaten,” says Murphy of a 56-31 defeat. “Things didn’t go that well that day for everyone, but I probably took the brunt of it as the out-half.

“We were 28-0 down after 15 minutes. A decision was made just before half-time to take me off and the game settled down a little bit after that. It didn’t go my way, but I don’t think I was the only one on the day. These things happen.”

The following season, Murphy was in talks with Leinster about a possible full-time contract but they never moved beyond that discussion point and he slowly shifted away from thoughts of a professional career.

He did have enquiries from England and an Italian club, but by then in his mid-20s, he admits he didn’t fully follow up on those opportunities. Professional rugby was still somewhat in its infancy and moving away from Ireland was not his idea of a good option.

“In some ways, in some ways, yeah,” says Murphy when asked if he regrets not going after those chances ruthlessly. “I don’t regret it from the side that I have enjoyed everything I have done in rugby.

“I think if I had been playing at a later stage, the opportunity probably would have looked better. There wasn’t that many players going away, it was quite early. I was in my mid-20s and I was looking at it thinking about work and other things. It just didn’t really seem to be the right time.”

Murphy’s coaching life was already developing at that point. Having come out of college with a sports and recreational management degree, Murphy initially balanced his AIL commitments – the league was huge at that point – with coaching and working in gyms.

He led Junior and Senior Cup teams at St. Gerard’s College and Pres Bray as he learned on the job. That work with his old school eventually culminated in helping them back into a Junior Cup final with a side led by Jason Harris-Wright, now on the books at Connacht.

Joe Schmidt and Richie Murphy 5/8/2011 Murphy with Schmidt in 2011. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“You pick up a lot just by watching teams, trying to get a feel for what they’re doing. I always played out-half, so a 10 would always have a tactical idea of what’s going on,” says Murphy of how his coaching instincts came about.

“He would have always had that idea of how he wants to play the game, so from a coaching point of view it would make it a little bit easier.”

By the time his playing days had come to an end, Murphy was an employee of Leinster Rugby, overseeing their underage development programmes and guiding U18, U19 and U20 teams to notable success.

He points to men like Gerry Murphy, Phil Orr and Colin McEntee as people he learned from and with. Having played with McEntee – who is now the IRFU’s high performance manager - from the age of 19, a close coaching bond formed between the pair within Leinster.

Murphy’s reputation as an excellent technical coach, particularly in the area of kicking, continued to grow throughout that time working behind the scenes, as he helped to push the likes of Johnny Sexton, Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden into the professional squad.

Michael Cheika noted the fine work and asked Murphy to pitch in with the senior set-up on a part-time basis.

“Cheiks had heard that I had done some kicking with the guys in the academy, so he asked me to come out and have a look at some of the senior backs. I started just doing a few bits for him and that grew from there,” says Murphy, whose sons now play the game, with 14-year-old Ben in Pres Bray and 11-year-old Jack with Seapoint RFC.

“I ended up in 2009 going in and working for him in a part-time role, looking after games for him, looking after the two or three days lead-in to games, so the kickers had a decent build up, while I was still working with the academy.

“Kicking was something that I would have been known for as a player, so as a coach it seemed to be a good fit. There was nobody really doing it around the country at that time.

“I developed a style in how I worked with the players and luckily enough Johnny, Mads, Fergus, they came through the Leinster system and I had worked with them in the academy and all the way up. It made that progression from being an academy coach into a senior coach a lot easier for me.”

Richie Murphy The success rate with Leinster was remarkable. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That move became a permanent one in 2010 when Schmidt arrived in as Leinster’s head coach, with Murphy appointed senior skills and kicking coach as the initial success under Cheika only grew.

Murphy played a key part as Leinster developed into the most skillful team in Europe, racking up trophy successes along the way.

“You don’t get a chance to look back,” says Murphy. “You win a Heineken Cup, you go out for beers on the Saturday and Sunday and then that’s it, it just goes. I think maybe you look back at that at another stage.

“We won three Heineken Cups, an Amlin and two Pro12s. It’s an incredible achievement for a club and we could have won another two Pro12s.”

It’s typical of Murphy to reflect on the ones that got away and it’s certainly something that Schmidt would do too. Their appetite for success is never satisfied and that remains true within the Ireland set-up even after back-to-back Six Nations trophies.

Murphy admits the balancing act between his Leinster and Ireland duties became a “tricky” one last season, as he constantly felt he was playing catch up to some of the goings-on in either camp when spending time away with his other team.

Leo Cullen’s appointment as head coach seemed a natural breaking point.

“It felt that it was the right time to move on,” says Murphy. “I was with Leinster for a long time and I really, really loved everything that happened in that time.”

Involvement with Ireland means Murphy’s career remains tangled up with Schmidt’s at this point. The head coach consistently refers to the good work of his assistant when speaking with the media, highlighting Murphy’s important contributions.

Though the perception is that Joe’s way is the only way, Murphy has always found the Kiwi open and willing to accept others’ ideas.

Richie Murphy with Joe Schmidt Murphy and Schmidt's careers remain tied together. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“At first we were trying to feel each other out a little bit,” says Murphy of their introduction at Leinster back in 2010. “I had to see what he wanted and I also had to be true to myself and what I believed in.

“In fairness to him, he’s always given me that respect and allows me to do that. I would go to Joe with certain things, stuff that I see in our team that I don’t think is exactly right and I show it to him and explain what I see.

“Joe takes information from all his coaches. There is a thought process out there that it’s Joe’s way or the highway, but we don’t see that from a coaching point of view.

“We’d all have a voice in the room and he doesn’t have to agree with it all the time, but he’s always willing to take things and run with them.”

One gets the sense that Murphy’s rugby brain and passion for the game mean he is eventually destined for a head coaching role of his own, but for now he is happy to be playing a supporting role and attempting to lift the skill levels of this rugby nation.

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Murray Kinsella

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