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FEATURE IRFU get their man as Richie Murphy tasked with Ulster rescue

IRFU get their man as Richie Murphy tasked with Ulster rescue
2 months ago

Within days of Ireland’s World Cup quarter final exit, news emerged that Mike Catt would be moving on from his attack coach role, at the end of the season. Richie Murphy was a name that came up in most of the resulting dispatches. Andy Farrell and the IRFU had other ideas, though. Andrew Goodman would step up from Leinster to take Catt’s place. Leinster would then have a role to fill. Murphy’s name was mentioned but the Ireland U20 coach had other ideas. So, it seems, did the union.

Noel McNamara, the previous Ireland U20 coach, had found progressing upwards in the Irish set-up tough and headed to South Africa to take up a senior coaching role with the Sharks. He is now with Bordeaux and attack coach for a side that has blitzed in 107 tries (and counting) across the Champions Cup and Top 14, this season. Murphy had ambitions to step up as a head coach and the union were keen to keep him around. All that was missing was a province to hit the skids. By mid-February, Ulster did the honours, Dan McFarland was thanked for his efforts and Murphy was dispatched up the M1.

The news was announced on Monday but many Ulster supporters noted the interview accompanying it had been pre-recorded, the previous week. It was a good thing, then, Murphy’s new side had beaten a ragged Scarlets, on the road, to keep hopes of knock-out rugby, and Champions Cup qualification, alive.

It has been 18 years since the province won any silverware, and around a decade since they possessed a squad that looked capable of doing likewise. Back in 2012, Tommy Bowe returned from a successful stint with Ospreys and teamed up with new coach, Mark Anscombe. That summer, there were interviews lined up for the media to announce a new sponsorship deal. The big trio of Bowe, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris were rolled out. The squad also contained the likes of Johann Muller, Andrew Trimble, John Afoa, Nick Williams and Jared Payne. A team that had lost the Heineken Cup final to Leinster, that May, had been significantly strengthened. Anything seemed possible.

John Fogarty Richie Murphy
Richie Murphy shares a joke with Ireland scrum coach John Fogarty (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

There were valid rumblings in the supporter base that outgoing coach Brian McLaughlin had been harshly done-by, but that faded as Anscombe’s talented side won their first 13 games of his first season. They would reach the PRO12 Final at the end of a campaign when they had been rocked by the tragic death of centre Nevin Spence, his father and his brother, in a farming accident. The following season saw them win six from six in their Champions Cup pool and clinch top seeding for the knock-out stages. They were left ruing an early Payne red card in a heart-breaking home quarter final loss to Saracens, then ran into Leinster in the league semi-finals. That was it for Anscombe, who left in the summer of 2014. 10 years on, it is crazy to think that Anscombe’s time at Ulster may have been considered a failure. That is how ambitious they were.

Within four years of the Kiwi’s departure, we had Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes try and fail. Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding had their contracts terminated before moving on to France. By the end of 2017/18, Bowe, Trimble, Payne, Chris Henry and Paul Marshall had all retired. When Brian O’Driscoll referred to Ulster as a ‘basket case’, it got the backs up of many players and supporters but it was hard to argue with. McFarland came in as a steadying hand, brought in some former Leinster players (Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore), a couple of Irish-qualified Premiership stars (Will Addison and Billy Burns) and promoted the best prospects from the academy.

The 54-year-old [Murphy] has built up an impressive coaching resume and has earned a chance to take the reins in a head coach capacity. Still, it feels like big union influence over the appointment.

Six years on, after shedding the ‘interim’ tag, coach Richie Murphy will be relying on a similar template. Not long after Ulster made the announcement, the official IRFU account declared it as ‘great news’ for the province. Former Ulster players Mark McCall (Saracens) and Jeremy Davidson (Castres) may have been higher up others’ lists but there was a considerable nudge to appoint Murphy. The 54-year-old has built up an impressive coaching resume and has earned a chance to take the reins in a head coach capacity. Still, it feels like big union influence over the appointment. The “mothership”, as respected Irish rugby reporter Brendan Fanning calls the union, has made the call.

Ulster, with comings and goings at the executive levels, are floundering and the union has swooped. David Humphreys departed the province in 2014 to take up a director of rugby position at Gloucester. The former Ulster and Ireland outhalf is taking over from David Nucifora as IRFU Performance Director. Nucifora was asked, following the Grand Slam success of Ireland in 2023, if the union would consider a ‘fifth province’ or taking a stake in a club like London Irish, just so more promising young players could get top level experience. Humphreys and many others at the union will be focusing and getting a handle on Ulster first. That is the priority and solid company man Murphy has been installed to restore order.

Ulster
Ulster have endured a mixed season but are backed by vociferous support at the Kingspan (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Springbok prop Stephen Kitshoff has taken some flak after it was announced, four months after he arrived in Belfast on a three-season deal, that he would be leaving Ulster in the summer. In reality, the South African is doing the province a favour and clearing up salary space. The province only have Iain Henderson on a central contract with the IRFU, and that expires in July 2025 when the lock will be 33. Burns is off to Munster, next season, and Addison has been linked with a return to Sale Sharks. Angus Curtis retired, mid-season and Luke Marshall is hanging up his boots in the summer. Senior stars Dave Ewers and Greg Jones are also leaving. 31-year-old Sharks winger, Werner Kok – a bizarre capture – is the only confirmed incoming.

Murphy has that Mauricio Pochettino-esque reputation of bringing out the best in young players. Ulster and the IRFU will be banking on him bringing that skill to a province that has been rightly criticised, over the past decade, for not harnessing enough local talent. Asked about possible big-name arrivals, Murphy stated, “We’re not looking at a marquee signing but exciting young players. We’re not like a Man City of the rugby world – we can’t go out and take whoever we need, so that means we need to develop from within. Our link with the academy needs to be really strong.”

With transfer creativity and academy promotions the go-to, Murphy is already looking at who he can build a solid team around.

Max Deegan, it was reported here by Neil Fissler, opted against leaving Leinster for a main role at Ulster but they may return to that deep, blue well. Hurricanes and New Zealand U20s fly-half Aidan Morgan is being looked at as a possible replacement for Burns, and comes with the bonus of being Irish-qualified. Connacht have already snapped up Ben Murphy and Temi Lasisi from the wider Leinster squad. Ben Murphy, a decent scrumhalf prospect, is Richie’s son but his younger brother, Jack, could yet head to Ulster. Jack started all five Six Nations games at outhalf for Ireland U20s, as they went unbeaten and finished second on points difference to England. If he did make the move, he would be dicing with Jake Flannery, James Humphreys, son of David Humphreys, and possibly Morgan for the 10 jersey. A handy acquisition of Ireland U20s centre Wilhelm de Klerk may be soon confirmed. He was with the Leinster underage set-up but there was no room at the academy inn.

With transfer creativity and academy promotions the go-to, Murphy is already looking at who he can build a solid team around. Heading into 2024/25, they have Rob Herring and Tom Stewart (albeit in the same position), Tom O’Toole, Iain Henderson, Alan O’Connor, Nick Timoney, Kieran Treadwell, John Cooney, Stuart McCloskey, James Hume, Rob Baloucoune, Jacob Stockdale and Mike Lowry. It is a long way from that 2010 to 2015 crop, but a decent base. You then have the likes of Harry Sheridan, Dave McCann, Cormac Izuchukwu, Nathan Doak, Ethan McIlroy, Jude Postelthwaite and Stewart Moore pushing on, and young prop Scott Wilson showing real signs of promise.

Steven Kitshoff
The departure of Springbok superstar Steven Kitshoff a year into his three-year deal caused much debate but freed up funds (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Murphy needs the next tranche of youngsters to over-perform and quickly transition into senior squad options, while staying competitive. There are high hopes for Bryn Ward, son of Ulster legend Andy Ward, in the back row, while 21-year-old James McNabney amassed 14 Ireland U20 caps in his two-year stint and picked up three senior appearances (including one in the Champions Cup) in the No 8 jersey, this season. Josh Stevens and Tom Briggs are emerging back row options that have also worked with Murphy at U20s. Joe Hopes and 6ft 8in Charlie Irvine are the best bets to break into the second row, next season. While we are dropping a clutch of names, add Ethan Graham (winger), Jacob Boyd (prop) and Nathan Doak’s younger brother, Cameron (prop) to the list.

Not for the first time, Leinster find themselves central in the Ulster plot. On Saturday, Murphy can buy some of that time (as well as grace and money for the coffers) by turning over his old side.

Richie Murphy has been awarded a two-year contract, so neither Ulster or the IRFU are getting carried away. They are aware of the enormity of the task facing the Wicklow native, but they will expect signs of progress as next season ticks on. As for this season, the prospects of travelling to Thomond Park needing a win against in-form Munster, on the final day of the regular season, are stark. Ulster could secure knock-out and Champions Cup rugby, though, by beating Leinster, in Belfast, on Saturday evening.

Leinster have the Champions Cup Final, in London, seven days later so Ulster, and their fans, will be watching the team announcements closely. Even if Leo Cullen and Jacques Nienaber hold some big names back, the province has confirmed Hugo Keenan, James Ryan and Will Connors are all in contention for the match. Not for the first time, Leinster find themselves central in the Ulster plot. Murphy could yet prove the right man for the job. Time will tell. On Saturday, he can buy some of that time (as well as grace and money for the coffers) by turning over his old side.

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