Geordan Murphy is standing in the clubhouse at Topps Park, the home of Oadby Town Football Club, running his eye over a list of Leicester Tigers' results from the 1997-98 Premiership season in a dog-eared copy of the Playfair Rugby Union Annual. "Er, I think I played in that one, Newcastle at home," the Irish full-back says, still muddied from a morning shift across the road at Oval Park, Leicester's training ground. "I don't really know, to be honest."
It is 15 seasons since the man from Co Kildare was first blooded as a cub full-back for the Tigers. The mercurial Murphy has played so many games for Leicester (274 in all competitions, 177 in the Premiership) that he can perhaps be excused for not being able to pinpoint the first.
For the record, he was an unused replacement in the home game against Newcastle on 30 December 1997, but made his debut on 14 February 1998. Will Greenwood, Leon Lloyd and Joel Stransky scored the home points in what, at 34-19, was not quite a St Valentine's Day massacre against London Irish at Welford Road.
It was back in the days when Leicester used the alphabet to identify their players. Murphy had the letter O on his back. He was 19 then. He's 33 now.
He's been there and done it with the Tigers and still has the full-back's shirt (now numbered 15) – plus the captain's armband. He has won seven Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups with the East Midlands institution known as the Manchester United of English rugby. He has become accustomed to dealing with the club's quadrennial handicap – the game of catch-up they invariably have to play every World Cup season.
Not that the Tigers have ever had quite so much ground to claw back on their domestic rivals. Having lost five of the six league fixtures while a dozen of their players, Murphy among them, were away on international duty in New Zealand, Leicester will line up against an in-form Sale at Edgeley Park tonight second bottom of the Aviva Premiership pile, 19 points behind the leaders Harlequins and 10 points off the play-off zone.
Richard Cockerill's side are not quite in need of assistance from Willie Thorne but they can ill afford a sixth loss in Stockport tonight with the bulk of their World Cup players back in Premiership tow. "No, I don't think we need snookers," Murphy ponders, "but it has been a tough start to the season for us. We lost a lot of guys to the World Cup and we've also had injuries to a couple of key players. We're down the bottom of the table and I think quite a few people have written us off already.
"It's a tremendous challenge for us. Myself and the rest of the guys are looking forward to, hopefully, climbing the table and getting ourselves in a position towards the end of the season where we can compete for some silverware."
It happened last time round. After the 2007 World Cup, Murphy and his team-mates got themselves into a position to tilt for trophies. They scraped into the play-offs with a last- gasp try by Tom Varndell against Harlequins and reached the Twickenham final, losing to Wasps. They also made the final of the EDF Energy Cup, losing to Ospreys.
They did not make such a bad start to the Premiership without their World Cup players in that campaign, losing just two of their opening six matches with Cockerill, their current director of rugby, performing a tidy job as caretaker. The trouble came with Marcello Loffreda arriving to take the reins directly on the back of a World Cup campaign in France with Argentina. Leicester failed to survive the pool stage of the Heineken Cup and Loffreda was sacked at the end of the season.
It was worse in the 2003-04 World Cup season. Dean Richards failed to survive to the end of the campaign as Leicester's director of rugby. While Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Ben Kay and Co were Down Under helping England to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, Richards' side lost five of their opening eight games in the Premiership. They finished the season fifth. It was the last time they failed to make the play-offs, contesting the consolation Zurich Wildcard instead.
"I think it was all very different in 2003," Murphy says. "The guys came back having won the World Cup, and were forced into playing again very quickly. It took us a while to start to string wins together.
"In 2007 we found ourselves in eighth or ninth and did well to climb our way up the table. We got to the final of the EDF and into the play-off final. So it's do-able. It's a long shot, but it's the kind of challenge the guys here relish."
That relish was evident at Welford Road last Friday night when a Leicester XV featuring nine World Cup returnees – including the try-scoring Dan Cole and Manu Tuilagi, the goal-kicking Toby Flood and captain Murphy – beat Gloucester 40-14 in the LV= Cup.
Tuilagi, though, joined the ranks of wounded Tigers against Gloucester. After his World Cup travails the 20-year-old will now be out of action for six weeks with a broken cheekbone, Cockerill revealed last night. He also announced that Tuilagi's centre partner, Anthony Allen, is expected to be out for three months after a freak DIY accident, in which he severed the artery in his thumb while cutting kitchen flooring.
For the rest of Leicester's England boys, however, the Premiership and the looming Heineken Cup offer the chance to release the frustration of a desperately disappointing campaign in New Zealand. For Murphy, the line has already been drawn under a World Cup that came as a bonus to him.
He made the Ireland squad only after a last-minute injury to Felix Jones, having himself spent all year getting back to fitness after a broken ankle. He played in the pool victories against the US and Russia, taking his cap haul to 72, but watched the quarter-final defeat to Wales from the stands.
"From my point of view, I made the most of getting out to the World Cup," Murphy reflects. "I enjoyed every minute of it. But I'm happy to be back here now, trying to help Leicester out, steering the ship." It's a ship that needs some urgent steadying on the Premiership tide, starting against the Sale Sharks in deepest Stockport tonight.
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