Murphy finds flaw with the stereotype

Ireland still dogged by their image as they start new phase of rebuilding project
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The Independent Online

Lucie's most recent hit single is called "The Game is Won". A good omen for the Irish? "We're playing the best team in the world," says Murphy. "We'll be massive underdogs." So true, Geordan, so true. Funny how it seems...

Hang on, the genuinely funny thing about Ireland is that, not so very long ago, they showed every sign of finally slipping the leash of the under-dog. Take a look at their recent record: top-three finishes in each of the past five Six Nations' Championships; wins over England in three of the last five meetings; Dublin victories over Australia in November 2002 and South Africa in November 2004.

These were not the results of also-rans. Yet Murphy, the outrageously gifted Leicester Tigers wing and full-back, acknowledges that because Wales, not Ireland, ended a long wait for a Grand Slam last season, the old gloom is settling again around Lansdowne Road. A first victory over New Zealand at the 18th attempt would certainly change that.

"People said it was going to be Ireland's year," says the 27-year-old, "but it's all just talk and what happens on the field is what matters. Yes, we had a good chance to win the Grand Slam, but Wales did it. I think that we are in a new phase and there has to be a huge amount of excitement about playing the All Blacks. It's an absolute pleasure playing against the strongest team in the world."

Murphy is speaking from long experience. He attended Auckland Grammar School on exchange at 16 - "I learned a lot out there, and it's definitely the reason that I'm a professional rugby player today," he confides - and played two Tests on tour with Ireland in 2002.

The previous November, however, when New Zealand last visited Dublin and won 40-29, he was still a fringe player and, cut from the squad, watched the match in an airport lounge. "We were a couple of tries in the lead," Murphy recalls, "but they came back and won and Richie McCaw got man of the match for his first cap. That's the strength in depth New Zealand can show. They all play very intelligently. They're close to the perfect side."

Fast-forward to the summer just gone, and Murphy - now virtually an automatic choice for Ireland, though he won't admit it - forced his way into the Lions' Third Test side in Auckland. He has more high praise for the likes of Rico Gear and Joe Rokocoko, the wings who started against Wales yesterday, and Doug Howlett and Sitiveni Sivivatu, who did not but might face the Irish.

If the All Blacks' style can be characterised as open and expansive, how can we describe Ireland in this difficult almost-but-not-quite phase? "Phew, I have no idea, that's your job," says Murphy. "Traditionally, what are we? We're players who hope for rain and kick garryowens all day. That's what we do. Except that's not what we do, that's just a stereotype. I love to run with the ball and try things, but that doesn't always happen and it can be a set-piece game. Something I learned very early in Leicester is that it's about the team, not the individual."

Ireland have talismen injured fore and aft in Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, with two more Lions, Simon Easterby and Shane Horgan, also doubtful. Still, unless the coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, springs some surprises, the starting XV will be fairly familiar. Ulster are unusually well represented, though the majority of their eight men in the squad of 24 are likely to be used as cover. Matt McCullough, 24, is the second-row back-up to Donncha O'Callaghan and Malcolm O'Kelly; brothers Rory and Simon Best are the front-row understudies to Marcus Horan, Shane Byrne and John Hayes. And Neil Best (no relation to the other two) is one of five back-row contenders, with Easterby nursing a broken nose. Out of the squad, however, is Leinster's 35-year-old loosehead prop Reggie Corrigan.

"Hopefully some of these new guys will be the ones taking us onwards and upwards," says Murphy. "We haven't set goals, but I know Eddie O'Sullivan will want to win all three games. He won't have any ideas of 'two out of three ain't bad'."

Sounds like a song Lucie might do justice to. Murphy has a couple of team-mates interested in going to her gig in Vicar Street on Tuesday week. He says he doesn't go in for the VIP treatment. But if in the meantime the All Blacks have been beaten the Guinness is bound to come laced with champagne. All together now:Black Velvet, and a little boy's smile...

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