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'I have no cruciate in my left knee... I'd an ACL reconstruction my first year in England and the graft never actually took'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Johne Murphy can’t lose on Friday night – whatever the result of the Challenge Cup final between Leicester, his former club, and Montpellier, the French outfit run by his academy business partner Philippe Saint-Andre, he will have a certified reason to cheer.

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It’s the morning after, though, when a pinch might be felt as the 36-year-old has committed himself to put in hard yards despite his gammy knee playing up again and affecting his preparation for The Big Rugby Run, a fund-raiser where teams in Ireland will cover the distance of a full marathon while carrying a rugby ball.

Organised by PSA Academies, €60,000 was raised last year for Feed the Heroes, 117 teams made up of 1,700 runners doing their bit. Tackle Your Feelings, the mental health and well-being programme run by Rugby Players Ireland, will be this year’s beneficiary and Murphy will give it everything he has on Saturday despite the pain likely to accompany nearly every step.

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“I’d planned to do a half-marathon and unfortunately about three or four weeks ago my knee started giving up on me so I will probably do about 10km but I might try and push it to see if I can grind out my knee to about 15km. That was as far as I got (in training) and then my gammy knee just started to fall apart. I’ll struggle through a minimum of 10km anyway,” he told RugbyPass with a steeled determination.

“I have no cruciate in my left knee. It’s something that I kind of had to deal with the whole way through my career. I had an ACL reconstruction my first year over in England and the graft never actually took but we only found out that after the fact, so it was just a consistent thing that I had to keep working on every week from a rehab perspective.

“It’s just slowly starting to catch up on me now so I had to give up Junior B (Gaelic) football and everything like that when I retired as well. We’ll grind it out as long as we can and I’m sure there will be a new one put in at some stage, hopefully later in life not in the next couple of years.”

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Those next couple of years will be interesting watching Murphy make his next move. He is effectively a full-time rugby coach, marrying together roles as director of rugby at grassroots All-Ireland League club Naas and being in charge of the coaching at Newbridge College, the school that has Bernard Jackman, the ex-Grenoble and Dragons boss, in charge of the college’s pack.

Jackman has laid down roots again in Ireland, opting out of frontline professional club coaching after earning his stripes in France and Wales. His family were of a certain age and the lack of security in a results-based business convinced the 45-year-old his best option was to head home and start doing something else away from rugby as his main job.

This is a conundrum that Murphy – nine years younger than Jackman – is now grappling in his own mind. It was two years ago when he first told RugbyPass about his grand ambitions, quipping: “I’d jokingly prefer to look back at 40 having gotten the sack and going, ‘At least I gave coaching a try’.”

What is his outlook now regarding that career aim? There has been a pandemic. There has been further evidence the IRFU generally favour coaches from overseas for its professional teams rather than those who are homegrown. And Murphy has also seen the uncertainty of old pals not having a job, Geordan Murphy squeezed out at Leicester and Felix Jones quitting Munster before re-emerging with the helping hand of Rassie Erasmus.

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“I know Geordan and Felix and those guys quite well. I coach with Bernard Jackman who has been through that stuff as well, he is my forwards coach in Newbridge College. Look, with everything in professional sport that is the downside. I lived that Tuesday fear every week while I was playing for ten, eleven years.

“That is just part of professional sport and it is something to always be aware of but nothing ventured, nothing gained would be my view in the sense how are you ever going to know whether you are up to it or not unless you give it a go.

“I’m fully aware of the downsides and I suppose in reality it is like when you are playing, you know how to deal with it quite well, you understand it, but it’s all the people around you that it probably affects more now, my wife, my family, my mum and dad because you are used to that element of the professional game.

“It’s just part of it and if you go into it you have to expect it. Someone told me there are two types of coaches, one that has been sacked or someone that is going to get sacked. You have to have your eyes open to that fact about coaching in the professional sphere.

“I’m more or less full-time coaching at the moment between school and the club, but there have been a few opportunities that have arisen over the last couple of months and for whatever different reasons they haven’t necessarily suited where my family life is or that kind of stuff.

“But it is certainly something I have a love for, particularly the age group that I’m dealing with at the moment from school and that transition age from 18 to 22 into a senior set-up. I really enjoy working with that age and it’s something I feel I would probably be quite good at. I have really enjoyed my school time, so to progress it and follow the journey on the next step would certainly be something I would be very interested in.

“I probably would (go abroad). My wife might have certain restrictions, shall we say, around where but my children. We have three within 18 months of each other and AJ, our eldest, is heading into junior infants next year so it’s probably around the time if there was a country move it might be something that would suit their age bracket.

“When you have young children, the travel period is probably between primary school years and then you would like to have them settled at secondary school because that is generally where you can meet a lot of your life-long friends. For us, it would be important to be in Ireland, particularly around that secondary school age for your kids. It’s quite important.”

Moulded by the ways of the rugby world at Leicester and then Munster, Murphy strikes you as a very considerate operator who cares as much about the person as the player. Take the awkward situation he found himself in at Newbridge. When Ireland was still open for business, he had guided his team to its first Leinster Cup final since 1996 and there was huge excitement that they were just 80 minutes away from lifting a trophy they last won in 1970.

However, their RDS showpiece versus Co Kildare rivals Clongowes was shelved when the pandemic restrictions kicked in and while Murphy has immense pride in how the teenagers have coped so far with that disappointment of a game that will never be played, he feels it will only be when the sport eventually returns to normal and big crowds are back at the big games that it will definitely hit home what was sacrificed.

“They have been amazing,” he said about the young cubs who had their dream March 2020 date dashed. “They put their head down and got on with it, but it’s going to affect them probably when they look back, particularly the next cup final that is played in front of 15,000 people. It will be something that will really irk them I would imagine.

“Particularly this year’s sixth years, they have had no journey at all, no cup run. They got a cup draw and that was about it. They have reacted incredibly well but there is always going to be a sense of frustration and it’s something they will look back on with you can’t even say regret because they didn’t even get to live it. It’s something that is going to really be at the back of their mind and something that will be incredibly frustrating for them for a very long time,” he said, fleshing out his perspective to include what he is up to with Saturday’s fund-raising run.

“Having experienced what I have experienced with the teenagers that I work with on a daily basis, the Tackle Your Feelings and the programme they want to roll out between schools and clubs is something that needs to happen on the frontline. There are a lot of people struggling at the moment. It’s very topical and very important that we row in behind this great initiative.”

Back to Friday night’s European final, though, the fixture where Murphy has a hat in both Leicester and Montpellier corners. He has kept an eye on Tigers ever since he left in 2010, noting the presence of ex-colleagues such as Brett Deacon and Matt Smith on the new Steve Borthwick coaching ticket while also acknowledging the fire-fighting Saint-Andre has had to do, the first-year director of rugby sacking his head coach during a winter where Montpellier were stalked by Top 14 relegation.

Both clubs have looked promising in recent months and Murphy is curious about what will unfold at Twickenham. “Leicester are still a long way away from really competing for frontline honours but there are certainly steps forward into being contenders within two or three years again in the Premiership if they can get things right.

“It’s great to see them in the final. I will be cheering on both sides with Philippe on the other side with Montpellier having also massively turned things around. Either side who wins, it’s going to give a massive boost to them.

“I wouldn’t even say Philippe is close to being near the finish of that restructure yet but this is someone who left the pro game and came back after four, five years out and is doing a good job. he is the stereotypical man-manager, understands how you can get a dressing room playing for each other and they have signed a couple of new coaches that are going to be announced in the next few weeks that will be really exciting for them and should put them in good stead going forward.

“Montpellier are now safe in the Top 14 and if they can win this they can really bounce on into next year with a bang. And same for Leicester… getting a medal in the back pocket for those 20- to 23-year-old guys would be a massive confidence booster and really put them in a spot where they believe they can really kick on.”

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'I have no cruciate in my left knee... I'd an ACL reconstruction my first year in England and the graft never actually took'

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