Our exposure to one of the most influential men in the history of Irish rugby was closest during his time managing the Ireland side. Murphy — Noisy as everyone knew him — arrived in the nick of time for conservatives desperate to quell the advance of player power evident at the 1991 World Cup. With his appointment the IRFU knew they had a man who would take the most direct route to putting the players in their place.
If it was hard to keep a lid on a group who liked the idea of sharing in the profits the game was generating, then it must have been eased by the poor results, of which there were many. How could these fellas be beating the anti-amateurism drum when they were getting hosed on the field?
In fairness, his response to setbacks, like the hammerings his team took in New Zealand in 1992, was to whip out his map and point to the swings and roundabouts. What goes around comes around. Everyone gets a turn.
The maddening bit, however, was it suggested you didn’t have to make tough choices about how to get better. Sit tight and your spin on the merry-go-round would arrive. That was how the world worked.
That got stuck in our head a few years ago when Ireland ran headlong into an England side who were better at everything. Nothing summed up the dilemma better than the irony of opportunity knocking for Ross Byrne.
The door had opened for the Leinster out-half in November 2018, when Ireland were punching so far above their weight it was dizzying. Two runs off the bench against Italy — a nice spin to Chicago thrown in — and the US Eagles and you can say you’re a Test player. For the rest of your days above ground you will be entitled to buy tickets to home internationals. You’re in the club.
By the time Joe Schmidt gave Byrne another go the tide had turned. That change in direction dawned when England came to Dublin for the 2019 Six Nations. They exploded out of the traps. With clear sight of exactly how they were going to hurt their hosts, they looked a different side to the one frozen stiff the previous March when Ireland won a Grand Slam in Twickenham.
Well, they were a different side. The outstanding second row pairing of Maro Itoje and George Kruis had been supplemented by an all-new back row of Billy Vunipola at number eight, with Mark Wilson and Tom Curry either side of him. Add in Manu Tuilagi in midfield and it was night and day.
By the time Byrne was given a go against England in Twickenham, five months later in a World Cup warm-up, the machine that was Sam Underhill was in for Wilson in the back row. Ireland were already on the slide. World Cup warm-ups are capricious affairs where teams are at different stages of preparation, wanting different things from the day, but even so this was car crash stuff. Byrne was the crash test dummy. He had no chance of a World Cup place anyway, but Schmidt needed the 10 jersey filled on that sunny day in south west London.
By the time England had made it three in a row, in the 2020 Six Nations, we were looking for Noisy Murphy’s number to check if his swings and roundabouts theory was still holding water. The score at half-time that day was 17-0 to England. It’s a funny thing but anyone with close-up experience of the game at any level will tell you that’s the last scoreline you would use as a comfort blanket.
Whatever it is about 17-0, if the trailing team gets one back it changes the whole mood. If it becomes two then it’s confirmation that collapse is imminent. Well, Robbie Henshaw got over for a try nine minutes into the second half. As Johnny Sexton missed the conversion the stewards were planning their end of match positions.
Where was the light breaking through for Andy Farrell’s Ireland? Already struggling to find direction post-Schmidt, the new coach had warning signs in key areas. His half-backs, Conor Murray and Sexton, were ageing and ineffective. His number eight, CJ Stander, was an easy-read for any defender prepared to stand up. Devin Toner was over the hill, Peter O’Mahony was overrated, and the gifted Jabob Stockdale had a blind-spot undermining his game.
So were England on prescription meds to calm their nerves coming to Lansdowne Road last year? Even by Eddie Jones’s standards he looked self-assured. He had transformed England en route to the World Cup and still Ireland were not a concern.
Yet with much in common — a handful of changes in personnel — Ireland changed shape. It’s widely accepted now that the combination of Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, either side of Rónan Kelleher, with Caelan Doris added to the back row, has been a game changer. Fit, athletic forwards make a huge difference in a game where those cards are high value.
Paris didn’t lessen their importance. The props put in a savage afternoon’s work to keep Ireland in the game. It would have had a different look if France had their heads and lungs in sync, but believe it or not they have a blind spot with Ireland. Even when they are clearly superior, they stop and remind themselves it’s Ireland they are playing; Ireland genetically have a mad streak; mad teams never know when they are beaten; madness is danger. While they were blinking and pondering that dilemma, Ireland got back in the game.
England don’t have that kink when it comes to us. They will be delighted by the absence of Porter and Kelleher and confident they can get after the Ireland scrum; reassured by the lack of impact from the opposition bench; upbeat having survived the dodgy period against Wales in the last round. And, according to Eddie Jones, their cohesive process is looking like it will stick.
For Andy Farrell this is fraught. His own process of cohesion has been a while in the making and despite the battering by France — not many can do what they did — is sound. Farrell’s concern is that losing a couple of the players who have made such a difference might create a hole he can’t fill. Now is not the time for another straight, cratered road, looking for a roundabout.