‘This means more. I could have packed it in’
Published 30/05/2015 | 02:30
When Denis Hurley stood on the podium in Cardiff and watched Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara lift the 2008 Heineken Cup, he must have felt like the good days would run and run.
Seven years on, he'll lead Munster in his first final since. Things haven't quite worked out the way the 30-year-old planned, yet he has persevered, re-invented himself and is now a key leader.
O'Connell is the only other member of that team of European champions in today's starting line-up. Donncha O'Callaghan is now a squad player, while Tomas O'Leary will return to the panel next season after his sojourn at London Irish. Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan were unused subs at the Millennium Stadium.
At 23, Hurley was playing his 13th game as a professional after Declan Kidney boldly preferred him to Shaun Payne for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup. A year later, he won his first Ireland cap and things looked bright.
By the time Munster won the 2011 Magners League, however, Felix Jones had assumed control of the No 15 shirt and Hurley found himself out of favour and questioning his future.
Faced with a choice, he presented the coaching ticket with a solution and, while he experienced resistance at first, he convinced them that he could do a job at inside-centre.
Ultimately Anthony Foley was sufficiently convinced to make Hurley his first-choice No 12 and has been vindicated to the point that he has handed Hurley the captain's armband for today's Guinness Pro12 final.
An up-and-down season culminates in Munster's first shot at silverware since they won the league at Thomond Park four years ago.
While victory would be hugely beneficial to the organisation, for Hurley there would be a huge sense of personal satisfaction, even more than there was when he became a European champion.
"It means a lot more now," he explains. "I know it's a league, people probably write it off, but the competitive nature of this league has gotten so strong that it's quite a tough competition to make the final, never mind win it.
"For me to get the opportunity to play. . . you always revert back to your family. It's very important for them, all the hardship that they've gone through. They've watched games when maybe I haven't performed well, they've been disappointed and it's great to be able to give back to them as well, more so than myself."
It is all the more satisfying for Hurley because he has experienced his fair share of lows since beginning on such a high.
At the lowest ebb, he questioned whether it was worth continuing at all.
"It did cross my mind, I hit a point at one stage where I just felt like things weren't working for me. I hit a bad mind space as well, I was hitting a wall and didn't feel like I was able to play as well as I know I could have," he recalls.
"I didn't feel like I was myself, I was trying to do things that other players might do in my position rather than doing what Denis Hurley does. It took me a while to try and get over that.
"Once I shook that monkey off I was able to deal with situations whenever they cropped up again.
"I think that's part of my whole personality now as well, I don't take things for granted. I think that's important going into this final, it's something I won't take for granted."
Key to bouncing back from that low point has been the switch from full-back to centre, which has given Hurley's career a second wind.
It was his idea. Despite never having played in midfield as a youngster when he was growing up in Navan, he reckoned his size and skill-set were a natural fit in the inside channels.
He reckoned he could do a job, but he first had to convince his coaches and, at first, he experienced resistance.
"I'd approached previous management a number of years back about playing in the centre and I was told I probably wasn't good enough to play there," he says.
"They gave me 15-20 minutes in a pre-season game at No 13 and it was the last it was spoken of.
"I'm always the kind of person that if you tell me I can't do something, it's always in the back of my mind that I want to prove you wrong.
"That's one of the things that's kept me going all of this time. When doors close, you have to try and find somewhere else that might work for you and open another pathway for you - that's important for me anyway.
"I could have packed it in a couple of years ago, you know, if I didn't have that mindset.
"That's what helped me keep training, keep trying. I look at things now and think 'I can do that better'. There's little parts of my game that I can improve on and get a bit more practice on.
"That's what makes me as a professional player: I never get to the point where I think I'm good enough, there's always something more to be done."
Hurley found a sympathetic ear in Foley, who agreed that he was built for the centre and was willing to give him a chance when he took over.
"I sat down and spoke to him even before there was a change in management about going and playing No 12," Hurley says.
"He was quite keen on it and I spoke to the other coaches who were kind of keen.
"At the start of last season Felix got injured and was out for a couple of months, so they said 'listen, we'll have to put the plans on the back burner' so I was playing full-back and when Felix came back I was out of the squad.
"So, it was only on the back of playing a couple of 'A' games at No 12, I got to play one or two games during the Six Nations last year for the senior team and, on the back of that, I got a contract as a centre.
"It's funny how things pan out. You have plans and ideas of what you want to do and you've just got to change at times if it's not working out. That's one thing I've tried to do throughout my career is to try to adapt."
That adaptability has allowed him flourish alongside Andrew Smith, even if he concedes that he is still learning the role on the job.
Foley has trusted in his leadership enough to hand him the captaincy when O'Mahony was away after impressing on the mid-season trip to Lanzarote which the coach used to begin the process of getting over their European disappointment.
"He's shown a lot of character," the head coach said. "He's one of the few guys left with a Heineken Cup medal and he doesn't go around beating his chest about it, but when he speaks everybody listens."
As for the impact that beating Glasgow Warriors at Kingspan Stadium today would have on the Reds, Hurley believes it would mark a huge leap forward.
"It is very big, our last bit of silverware was 2011, here. There's 10 or 12 lads that weren't involved in that. There's a lot of new faces in the squad," he says.
"I was lucky enough when I first started playing for Munster, we could be seven or eight points down with 10 minutes to go, but the belief in the team was always that we're not done and dusted.
"We came back in a number of games and won them.
"To win silverware would be massive, for lads to realise that as individuals and as a squad we are good at what we do when we focus and come together on days where we believe in one another, that good things can happen."
Today, they get their chance to take that step. If Hurley is the man who leads them there, it will be the culmination of an at-times difficult personal journey.