Rugby Union: Five Nations Focus: Murphy's lore for the flawed: Ireland have become locked into a no-win situation in the championship. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
GERRY MURPHY, with a fine disregard for the misrule of rugby football in Ireland at the time, took the poisoned chalice in his hands and ran with it, thus originating questions about his sanity from those who knew him best.

To adapt the inscription on the plaque at Rugby School about William Webb Ellis's supposed exploit is to wonder why on earth Murphy, a 47-year-old schoolmaster with a long but relentlessly low-profile background in coaching, should have consented to become coach of Ireland.

This is a job in which, right now, you can't win - because Ireland don't win. And no one expects them to beat France at Lansdowne Road on Saturday either. There has been no victory over a major rugby country since the miracle against Wales in 1990.

But that was heady wine that instantly turned to water; one measly draw in nine Five Nations matches means glorious near- misses such as the World Cup quarter-final against Australia and last year's first Test in New Zealand are quite, quite forgotten.

When Ciaran Fitzgerald resigned after the autumn defeat by Australia, yet another record, the Irish Rugby Union took a month to decide Murphy - Fitzgerald's assistant of six months - was their man. Even so, Murphy took no time at all to accept with alacrity. He has already drunk deep from the chalice, but is it poisoned?

'That would have been the reaction of all my friends: that I am absolutely bonkers,' he said. 'But I don't think so. I was very surprised to be given it but if you are coaching and are asked to take on something like this you don't think twice about it. Anyway, I don't think we're as bad as people think.'

The evidence suggests otherwise. The Irish have been left behind in the fitness revolution, in the professional and scientific match preparation and support systems that have become commonplace elsewhere. Add to that Simon Geoghegan's outburst against sundry Irish inadequacies and you cap the lot with internal dissension.

How Murphy retains his geniality in such circumstances is a source of astonishment. The IRFU having prevaricated over his appointment, his credentials have been constantly questioned ever since and the presence in the background (and frequently the foreground) of Noel Murphy, the team manager, has inevitably provoked questions about who is really in charge.

To all of which Gerry Murphy (no relation) reacts with equanimity, knowing full well he has been appointed for this season only and that he does not expect to be retained next season. 'I have had nothing but support from the coaches of Ireland, and the general rugby supporter is hugely supportive,' he said.

'To come into this job as a coach rather than a former international has been very gratifying and a step in the right direction.' Murphy draws a pertinent parallel with Alan Davies in Wales, although Davies had the advantage of entering a living, breathing rugby culture. Wales has 40,000 rugby players, Ireland just 12,500. Saturday's French XV in Dublin will represent a playing population of 218,500.

No amount of blarney can conceal these adverse statistics, but Murphy ploughs on regardless. 'Our aim is two-fold,' he said. 'What we have to do with the current team is try to get the confidence up and an improved performance. The other aspect is the longer term, towards the next World Cup. It's a chicken-and-egg thing: if we could get a win the pressure would drop off and I would be given time.'

The coach insists Ireland have not been left behind but then admits that his players are going through the very teething troubles their English counterparts did years ago. The dejection of the pallid 15-3 defeat in Scotland five weeks ago was such that when the team subsequently met for training at Lansdowne Road they spent most of the time talking it over. It will take Saturday's game to show whether this was therapeutic or a waste of good training time.

'We played abysmally. We did nothing that we said we were going to do and the Press went ape- shit,' Murphy said. 'We handed the squad weekend over to the players, told them it was up to them to decide on their priorities; nothing to do with the coach or the management. After a long session they came back with their list of priorities and at the top was fitness.'

It sounds like a Damascene conversion and in a way it was, but the trouble is that - as Alan Davies and Wales have found - it takes an inordinate time for fitness programmes and sophisticated back-up to have any effect. 'We have been doing this for less than a year (England have for more than five) and it hasn't worked terribly well for a number of reasons.

'The union is tending to be bashed on the head about this but it's not all of our own making. When Jimmy Davidson was coach (1987-90) he got a man to test everyone. But then the problem was that the system was not in place. The back-up didn't continue. But in a couple of years' time you will definitely see that Ireland have enough good young players to be a force, I would expect by the World Cup.'

Murphy's comparison with Davies would be more exact if he were in a position to make the demands Davies did as a precondition for becoming Wales coach. The Welsh Rugby Union has in one year installed an entire representative and training structure at Davies's behest.

One wonders whether Murphy - who played full-back for Trinity College and Wanderers, coached both as well as Clontarf, and was assistant coach of Leinster province and Ireland Under-21s - has equivalent clout. The only previous non-international to coach Ireland was Roly Meates 20 years ago.

As virtually all of Meates's successors have painfully discovered, it is an onerous task to develop cool-headed, analytical attitudes in a rugby environment which for so long had 'up-and-at-'em', or words to that effect, as its rallying- cry. Now even that - what Murphy calls 'the fight-and-fire thing' - seems lost. 'Just boot, bollock and boot isn't enough these days,' he added.

As the Welsh experience against England shows, it is marvellous what one win can do. But, in contemplating such a possibility, Murphy can only shudder at Irish perversity. 'Even with Irish home advantage, France will be odds-on favourites. No one over here gives us a smell.

'Unfortunately it's a double- edged sword. It's typically Irish that they don't give you a chance of winning but if you lose you're the worst sort of idiot.' This is Murphy's lore.

(Photograph omitted)