Murphy prepares to stand up to charge of the Munstermen

Heineken Cup quarter-finals: Leicester's Irish full-back plans to shatter dreams of countrymen for second year running

David Llewellyn
Monday 09 December 2013 03:24
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The high ball in Ireland was perfected by the Limerick club Garryowen, who, having polished it to the sophisticated weapon it has become today, promptly gave their name to it.

At its most potent it is a heady mix of distant, swirling ball, providing air cover for the platoon that is following it up on the ground and adding to the pressure of the man waiting underneath it.

Theory has it that it works a treat, especially early in a game, with the opposition player straining his eyes to pick it up out of the stratosphere, while trying to ignore the howling mob chasing hard upfield. It is a tactic intended to put the fear of the Almighty into the lone figure – the full-back – who is waiting, waiting for the ball to descend.

Custom and practice says the theory is sound. But custom and practice has not legislated for Geordan Murphy. The Leicester and Ireland full-back-cum-wing represents a greater threat to the opposition when under the high ball than the high ball is to him.

This counter insurgent is himself a cocktail of speed, balanced running, sidesteps and body feints that can waft him through a tide of humanity with not a finger laid on him. And if he does not actually score, or cannot set up a score, then at the very least he makes some serious ground.

If anyone should know about Murphy's capabilities it is Munster, after all he scored a try against them when helping Leicester beat the Irish province in last year's Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium. "The opinions of me on that day were mixed," Murphy says. "A few of my friends and quite a few of the Munster fans that I spoke to were very nice about it, congratulating me on the team win and on my score. And they certainly did not bear any hard feelings towards me."

They have since been reminded of his skills and potency while he has been turning in some fine performances for Ireland throughout the Six Nations tournament right up to, and during, the Grand Slam showdown with England a fortnight ago. And the chances are that in tomorrow's Heineken Cup quarter-final they will eschew the opportunity to "test" Murphy under the high ball, because they know he will pass with flying colours.

"I am sure my game will have been analysed. And if they perceive me to be weak under the high ball I am sure they will employ it," says the 24-year-old, who began the season with a shoulder injury. "I was a bit low at the start of the season. It was very frustrating for me, I felt a bit out of the loop and I was desperate to get back."

He has done so with a vengeance, scoring two tries in his first game of the season against Amatori and Calvisano in the Heineken Cup and following that up a week later with one at Saracens in the Zurich Premiership. And when he is not scoring tries he is kicking goals, defending brilliantly and generally making a serious nuisance of himself for Leicester.

He is doing similar for Ireland and that is no mean feat in itself. A couple of seasons ago the Irish selection policy did not go overboard about players based in England and it appeared that preference was given to those who showed their "loyalty" by accepting generous terms and upping sticks to return to their homeland.

Murphy, though, seems to have broken the mould. "A couple of years ago I did feel under some pressure to go back. I only had a couple of caps. I was tempted. But I spoke to the Ireland management before I signed my present contract and they said I was OK to stay on at Leicester." He had singlehandedly eradicated what might be termed "place-ism".

Not that Ireland and Irish rugby is not important to him. Murphy, who comes from Naas, outside Dublin, explained: "I take great pride from what Leinster, Ulster and Munster have achieved in Europe, and what Ireland are doing at international level. And if Leicester cannot win the Heineken Cup then I hope that Leinster or Munster do."

He even admits that if an Irish province showed interest in him in the future he would give the offer careful consideration, but right now his heart is with Leicester and his mind is on tomorrow's big match at Welford Road.

"Leicester and Munster are quite similar in a lot of respects, both play a similar style of rugby, with similar passion; both have tremendous support. It all adds up to a real family atmosphere in a match.

"This is a big game. Possibly the biggest game in Europe this weekend. Munster have shown what they can do by beating Gloucester at Kingsholm against all expectations. And if we play like Gloucester did, then we will suffer the same fate." But he added, with a smile: "We'll give it a lash."

You know that whichever side wins, in the bar afterwards the celebration highballs will be on Murphy.

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