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Richie Murphy can now embrace Ulster’s rugby makeover with certainty

It is not up to the IRFU or Ulster executives to interfere unduly with the fledgling senior coach - they have elected to give him the job so let him do it

Shortly after finishing my Leaving Certificate I was invited to train with Leinster, a momentous and unexpected honour but one that left me petrified. It was a fear of the unknown. I didn’t know much, if anything at all in most cases, about the players with whom I was now going to share a pitch.

I recognised Shane Byrne’s flying mullet from television pictures when watching an All-Ireland league match involving Blackrock College with my dad, but in truth I wouldn’t have been able to name anyone who hadn’t played schools rugby in the previous four years.

School sport was my world. There wasn’t the same access then to the world at large that there is these days through social media and also blanket television coverage of sport. I preferred to play not watch, so I sold my schoolboy international tickets for a hefty profit and headed into Dublin for a few hours away from the confines of a boarding school. International rugby was fun but a day kicking around Stephen’s Green with £25 in my pocket was far more compelling.

I quickly appreciated how narrow my rugby universe was on my first day at Leinster training. I was able to pick out Denis Hickie, Ciarán Scally, Emmet Farrell and Peter Smyth. I didn’t know them as people, but I knew of their pedigree coming from the schools game.

The rest were just a sea of faces. For some bizarre reason I remember thinking that I would be better than anyone I didn’t recognise, the chutzpah of youth. The majority of the Leinster squad were prominent in the AIL, stalwarts like Martin Ridge, Stephen Rooney, Declan O’Brien and one Richie Murphy.

On the pitch I was familiar with Farrell’s ability as a player but without that intel I made a snap judgment about Murphy based on his stature more than anything else. Over those first fledgling months where I nursed hopes of being an international fullback Richie tormented me in training, exposing my limitations in being able to provide adequate backfield cover.

He put the ball inches out of my reach, tantalisingly time and again, and there was nothing that I could do about it, an education process that included a lesson in humility. It would take a few years for me to get my own affairs in order as a player, but I never again took another’s ability for granted based on how they looked.

Those memories came flooding back, inspired by Ulster’s formal announcement this week that Richie had been upgraded from interim to new head coach at the province on a two-year contract. He was placed in a difficult situation once he accepted the initial short-term appointment in the sense he had no control over whether he would be offered the job regardless of impact and if he was given the role he could not turn it down.

An unwritten rule in employment, if you are offered a job or promotion and turn it down you are very unlikely to be offered it again. Ulster is a team in turmoil both on and off the pitch, the schizophrenic performances over the last number of years has left a frustrated supporter base, while losing long-term sponsor Kingspan has had a serious financial impact on the organisation.

This is not an easy assignment for a fledgling senior coach because there is a fair bit to do, but having gently tinkered with change while in the interim role he can now embrace the rugby makeover with certainty.

I’m sure he would have liked a less hurried and fraught entrance into senior professional coaching but sometimes in life we have to accept the hands we are dealt. He has demonstrated confidence in his ability and that is to be applauded in the circumstances. He must be given autonomy in the back room team and the final say in player recruitment.

It is not up to the IRFU or Ulster executives to interfere unduly. They have elected to give him the job so let him do it, otherwise they cannot critique his work, good, bad or indifferent.

I’ve seen first hand when coaches are forced upon one another – it was a less than fruitful experience and one with which the IRFU should be familiar. Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney were like oil and water in outlook and temperament during their time together with Ireland.

One of Murphy’s most immediate challenges is to get the right people in the boat and the wrong people off it. When Michael Cheika was appointed as Leinster head coach he faced a similar remit, and it took him a while before he completed the jigsaw in terms of the back room team. The benefit of doing that led to the success that ensued.

What defines success in Ulster in the coming seasons is very important to establish from the get-go as Murphy’s ability to bring players and fans with him will ultimately secure his tenure or be part of his undoing.

There is an appreciable difference between coaching the Ireland Under-20s and a senior professional franchise. There’s a transience at underage level, you get the best young players but have to come up with a game plan and a buy-in in a very short period of time, all while with a considerable churn in playing personnel.

In the professional ranks there is less volatility but potentially there are a lot more egos and cliques to deal with, and break up in some instances. It is also a more questioning environment in terms of the players while trying to juggle selection, performance and results.

There are tentative signs that Richie has already put a little of his own shape on team structure, the latest example of which was selecting the six-foot seven-inch Cormac Izuchukwu at blindside flanker in keeping with what has become a trend across modern rugby, manifest in players like Ryan Baird, Tom Ahern, Cian Prendergast, and Courtney Lawes to highlight a few.

Richie is likely to draw on his experiences working with Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell – two outstanding head coaches – cherry-picking the best aspects of those set-ups as he looks to construct one of his own.

Ulster has a talented coterie of young players right across the three-quarter line, at hooker and in the backrow, and perhaps could do with a reinforcement in the tight five and at halfback. That’s unlikely to be resolved with a chequebook, but his encyclopedic knowledge of the best young players in the country and the relationship he has with them might see a few head for Belfast.

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