Geordan Murphy was thrown in at the deep end when appointed interim head coach of Leicester Tigers one game into the new season, but two months on he is enjoying the rollercoaster ride.
“There is no intention, unless the wheels completely fall off, to make any further change. Every opportunity will be given to Geordie to make the most of the role.”
GEORDAN MURPHY FOUND it surreal sitting on stage alongside counterparts from the other clubs at the Heineken Champions Cup launch last week. Dean Richards on one side, Mark McCall on the other. A couple of weeks previous, at the Premiership launch, Matt O’Connor was in his seat but here he was, now the Leicester Tigers interim head coach.
When, one game into the new season, Leicester — England’s most successful club — lurched from one mess to another and sensationally sacked O’Connor, the Welford Road hierarchy looked to within for the solution, rather than looking externally for the answer to their conundrum.
And Murphy was the next man up. He received a call on the afternoon of 3 September, less than 24 hours after the Tiger were beaten comprehensively in their season-opener at Exeter Chiefs, to say these were the plans and this is what the club wanted him to do.
The dream job, in the most unfortunate of circumstances.
“It came around in a strange way really, and probably a little bit sooner than I would have imagined or planned,” he tells The42.
O’Connor’s shock departure saw Murphy — the Australian’s assistant — promoted to the top job on an interim basis and in doing so the former Ireland international became the fourth man to take charge of the Tigers in 20 months.
Once a great bastion of English rugby, Welford Road once the great citadel of English rugby, Leicester’s slide down the pecking order has been striking in recent years, with last season seeing the club fail to reach the Premiership play-offs for the first time in 14 years.
A fifth-place finish, coupled with a disappointing Champions Cup campaign, ultimately marked the end of O’Connor’s second tenure in charge, with the board moving to cut ties with the 47-year-old when they unanimously agreed there was no sign of an immediate upturn in results.
Instead, they handed the keys to Murphy, the club’s most-decorated player, in a bid to reverse their fortunes and unite the dressing room again having drifted away from the halcyon period of the fullback’s trophy-laden playing days in the English Midlands.
It was, by his own admission, a bit of a shock but now a part of the Welford Road furniture, Murphy was entrusted with the responsibility even at this nascent stage of his coaching career. The board made the appointment in the knowledge he cares about the club.
“I think that’s probably part of it,” he continues. “I’ve been here assisting over the past five years so it wasn’t a case of bringing in someone the players didn’t know because it was a week into the season. I knew all the systems, the policies and players so it probably made their decision a little bit easier.”
As well as the blazer and ties, Murphy received the unequivocal support from the dressing room, with many of the players recognising his legendary status within the club having won eight Premiership titles and two European crowns during 14 decorated years as a Tiger. That in itself was a good start, and a huge help.
“It hasn’t been too difficult in that sense because the playing group are great,” the former Newbridge College man says. “It has certainly been challenging and a very busy few weeks, but very enjoyable.”
Murphy barely had a week to get his feet under the desk before his first assignment against Newcastle Falcons, and having been thrust into the spotlight, his tenure got off to a winning start.
The Tigers then went to the Ricoh Arena for a round three clash with Wasps, a game overshadowed by the red card incident which propelled Murphy into the headlines for the wrong reasons, as he claimed the ‘game had gone too PC’ following Will Spencer’s dismissal.
The comments, which sparked huge debate and earned Murphy no-end of criticism, were ‘made with a little bit of emotion’ and he quickly admitted regret over his post-match condemnation of referee Ian Tempest. It was a serious baptism of fire.
“Yeah, it has been a rollercoaster and a steep learning curve,” Murphy concedes. “An interesting few weeks.”
Having worked his way up the ranks at Leicester since his retirement in 2013, Murphy has enhanced his coaching credentials and furthered his CV by spending time in New Zealand with the one ambition of reaching the top of the ladder.
While he is now in a head coach position, his development has been quicker than he would have expected and his period in charge of Leicester has been a rollercoaster ride so far, typified by the mixed and inconsistent results on the pitch.
After the winning start against the Falcons, the Tigers slumped to defeat to Wasps and then Worcester Warriors before seemingly turning a corner with victories over Sale Sharks and Northampton Saints in recent weeks.
It’s still early days but with the confidence and backing of the Leicester board, and indeed supporters and players, Murphy is set to be given to the end of the season to make an impact and prove himself as the right candidate for the job long-term.
The size of the task is considerable, not least because of Leicester’s recent fall from grace, but given Murphy has been forced to learn on the job under the constant pressure and scrutiny which comes with such a high-profile position.
One of the first people he was on the phone to after being appointed back in September was his former Leicester and Ireland team-mate Leo Cullen, who has of course experienced the transition into coaching and enjoyed considerable success very quickly.
“It’s very much like a love-hate relationship,” he says of the role. “Leo has been very good, when I was offered the role Leo was on the phone offering some advice. Certainly it is the case that you love it and hate it.
“People have no real idea of the hours and the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes. Certainly from my point of view, I haven’t been doing it long, but the days have been incredibly long. Six o’clock starts and you get home when you get home kind of thing to your family. It’s certainly time-consuming but you love it, you love the sport and you want to do the best job you can do for the team.
“It’s a pleasure, really, because any young coach would love the opportunity to experience it at a top club so from that point of view it’s absolutely amazing and I certainly haven’t been let down by the learning experience so far.”
Murphy has taken huge encouragement from the levels of support he has received: “I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve received messages of support from supporters and from people all over the world in rugby. I’ve been quite surprised by the amount of people I’ve received messages of support from. From that point of view it’s great and you just want to do the best you can.”
The Irishman will take charge of sixth game this afternoon, but the start of the Heineken Champions Cup campaign away at Ulster brings its own pressures, particularly given the club’s failures in this competition in recent years having previously been one of its protagonists.
Murphy will have fond memories of the Heineken Cup from his playing days, lifting the trophy twice during those heady times in the early noughties, but Leicester haven’t reigned supreme in Europe since 2001.
While talk of returning to those heights is a long way off, you feel the performance of the club in the Champions Cup will play a big part in determining if Murphy’s appointment becomes a long-term one.
“We’ve been under pressure here domestically as the Premiership is an incredibly tough competition week-in, week-out and our playing squad is certainly being tested with injuries and concussions,” he continued.
“We’ve had a few players down and it certainly feels like we’ve had a difficult first round to the Premiership but Europe is different feel, the intensity levels go up and we’ll be aware Ulster will be disappointed with their last two performances and certainly they’ll want to start Europe with a very big statement.
“We’re looking forward to getting over there and giving a good account of ourselves.”
Such has been the whirlwind nature of the last six weeks, Murphy hasn’t had much time to think about his return to Ireland, or his first European game in charge, but he’ll no doubt be keen to make a good impression back home later today.
“It’s something I haven’t really overly concerned myself with, but it’s nice,” he says of his first Champions Cup game at the helm being in Ireland.
“I’ve got quite a few friends up in Ulster and in Belfast, as some of the guys still playing I would have been good mates with from my playing days so hopefully they can do me a little bit of a favour and have off days. But I’m under no illusions of how difficult it’s going to be.”
Even allowing for Ulster’s back-to-back defeats in the inter-pros which has well and truly burst their bubble under new boss Dan McFarland, the history books make for fairly ominous reading for Murphy going to Belfast.
Not only are Leicester on a four-game losing streak in Europe, but they’ve lost the last seven of their eight trips to Ireland in the tournament, which their sole win in that period coming against Munster at Thomond Park back in 2015.
Furthermore, injuries to Scotland and England internationals David Denton and Jonny May doesn’t exactly help Leicester’s cause going into the Pool 4 clash at Kingspan Stadium [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport].
“In Europe you have to get points wherever you can, and we’ll be going to Belfast to put in a very good performance first and foremost and that’s the key thing we need,” Murphy says.
“We’ve been to Belfast before and been beaten out the gate so from that point of view we have to go and focus on the things that make us look good and the result will hopefully look after itself.
“Just the nature of where we are and the nature of what’s happened at the start of the season, we have been under the pump a little bit, so we have got to go out and focus on our game.”
With last year’s finalists, Racing 92, completing the pool, Leicester will be up against it to qualify for the knock-out stages but a strong opening-weekend performance against the northern province would lay down a marker and set the right tone.
It would be a particularly sweet moment for Murphy if he could mastermind a victory in Belfast, with the 40-year-old keen to seize his opportunity now that he’s been given the platform to launch his coaching career.
“I don’t think your ambitions change, my goals and aspirations haven’t changed anyway,” he adds. “You want to progress up the ladder and certainly I’m no different to anyone else.”
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