Murphy the free spirit committed to team values

The fortunes of the Lions' mercurial full-back may dictate the team's chances of beating the All Blacks
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There are many in New Zealand who believe that the British and Irish Lions are intending to bring the tightest of tight games to bear on the All Blacks in the forthcoming Test series. If the pessimists are proved right, Geordan Murphy will be conspicuous by his absence. Why include an all-singing, all-dancing tripper of the light fantastic in a side hell-bent on sticking the ball up their jumper, tractoring it upfield and praying for a few penalties? It would be an insult, akin to asking Rembrandt to paint the outside loo or getting Mahler to write an advertising jingle for disinfectant.

If, on the other hand, the Lions are planning to play some football, Murphy will be every inch their man. Some of his work against the Pumas during the warm-up match in Cardiff sent a tingle down the spine - no mean feat, given that 99 per cent of the proceedings took place in a creative vacuum. Ten days ago in New Plymouth, the Irishman raised the bar a little further by allowing his imagination to run free in the second half of the game with Taranaki, which was probably the most impressive 40 minutes of rugby served up by the tourists to date.

Today against Otago, he has his third and most important outing of the pre-Test leg of the trip. If, aided by the grace of God and a following wind, he revisits the heights he scaled for Ireland in the months before the 2003 World Cup - a tournament he missed after breaking a leg shortly before the gathering of the clans in Australia - he will surely be granted a place in the élite 22 for the fun and games in Christchurch seven days hence. Heaven knows, the Lions have shown little enough in the way of attacking flair thus far. If they have any designs on adventure, an in-form Murphy would be almost impossible to ignore.

Not that the 27-year-old full-back is especially keen to be pigeon-holed as an all-out attacker who considers defence to be a necessary evil, with the emphasis on the second of those words rather than the first.

"I play my rugby in a certain way, I suppose, but I don't consciously set out to do this or that regardless of the circumstances," he said yesterday after a brief reconnaissance mission to Carisbrook, the ancient and wonderfully atmospheric home of the Otago union. "If it's a tight, close match and we're trying to grind out a win, I'll happily do what has to be done. Sure, I love to play my own game, but there are times when... well, you know."

When a genuinely inventive talent emerges in the union game, governed as it is by a team ethic of all-consuming power, suspicion is an occupational hazard. David Campese, that unabashed standard-bearer for the cult of the individual, was frequently condemned as a selfish player, even by his fellow Australians. In New Zealand, Carlos Spencer might have won many more caps had there not been a degree of mistrust as to his motives on the field. It is the age-old question: can genius ever be trusted?

To be fair to Murphy, there has never been the slightest question-mark over his willingness to put the team first and himself nowhere. He plays his club rugby for Leicester, and if there is one team on the planet who make a point of sacrificing individual ambition on the altar of sporting collectivism, the Midlanders fit the bill.

"I'm a team player," Murphy said, categorically. "I approach rugby in a certain way and the coaches on this tour have encouraged me to do what comes naturally to me, but I'd be very upset if someone suggested I was following some agenda of my own here, that I was playing for myself rather than for the Lions. That wouldn't go down well at all. What concerns me is winning. If we're a few points to the good and there are opportunities to throw the ball around a little, fine. But it has to be about the team, not one particular person."

He first encountered New Zealand's uniquely challenging rugby environment as a teenager in the mid-1990s. His school outside Dublin organised a student exchange with Auckland Grammar, so the young Murphy found himself in the thick of it in the most demanding surroundings imaginable.

"I was a skinny little white kid," he said. "I'm not the biggest now, but back then I was tiny. It was a real eye-opener to see just how huge these people were, especially the boys from the Pacific islands." Did he play with Doug Howlett, the celebrated All Black wing, who was in his final year at Auckland Grammar when Murphy arrived for his five-month stay? "You must be joking. Doug was a year above me and playing senior rugby. It would have been criminal to put me in that company. Me against guys that strong? Carnage."

His size and strength was an issue in Ireland, too. Murphy made his international debut against the United States almost exactly five years ago and announced himself to the wider public by running in a couple of tries, but perceived defensive frailties outweighed the wit and exuberance of his attacking game in the minds of the coaching hierarchy and he was frequently overlooked in favour of the more prosaic Girvan Dempsey, of Leinster. That has now changed, probably for good. The Irish are less of a kick-and-hope act than they once were and with the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy bringing their own footballing skills to the green-shirted mix, the prevailing wind is very much in Murphy's favour.

Like several other outside backs in the Lions party - Josh Lewsey, Gareth Thomas, Jason Robinson, Tom Shanklin - he has more than one string to his bow. Murphy has spent a good deal of time on the wing, and there are those who would love to see him weave his web from the outside-half position, on the basis that he would see far more of the ball at No 10 than he does at No 15. But for the moment, Murphy considers himself a specialist full-back. "I really haven't thought of playing elsewhere during this trip," he confirmed.

But will the tourists work out a way of maximising the threat he so obviously poses? There were flashes of attacking flair against both Bay of Plenty and Taranaki, but the Lions' backs were barely given a sniff of an opportunity by a rampant Maori back row in Hamilton last weekend, and come Wellington on Wednesday, a combination of rain, wind and inhibition produced a dismal return on the creativity front.

"Actually, I think it's beginning to come," Murphy said. "There are definitely signs that the blocks are falling into place. When you bring together the best players from the whole of the British Isles, there is an assumption that everything will click together immediately. But even in this company - and believe me, there is some wonderful talent in this squad - it takes time to develop the necessary degree of familiarity. Yes, we'll have to score tries if we're going to beat the All Blacks. Can we score enough of them? I believe we can.

"Three weeks into the tour, I can sense the confidence growing. My own confidence levels have been high all season - I'm not one to drop my head and sulk if I have a bad game once in a while because at this level of rugby, you have to accept that things will go wrong now and again.

"The important thing now is to win this game against Otago, which will be no easy matter given their tremendous record against the Lions - a record that is a real source of pride for the people here.

"We have pride too, though, and this is a huge game in terms of challenging for a Test place. The coaches have always said that when a player pulls on the shirt, a shop window and a stage awaits him. There aren't many windows or stages left to us now - I guess the strong team fielded against Wellington was a rough guide to the way the selectors are thinking - so the pressure is very definitely on."

Murphy's CV

Leicester Heineken Cup winner in 2001 and 2002; won Premiership titles in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Ireland 31 caps since debut against USA in 2000, scoring 15 tries, one conversion and a drop goal; Triple Crown winner 2004.

British & Irish Lions Played against Argentina at Cardiff and Taranaki in New Plymouth, where he scored two tries and had a third disallowed.