Thursday 26 April 2018

Kilkenny's Paul Murphy - Hurler, soldier, warrior, leader

Friday Profile

Paul Murphy is 'improving all the time' - and he is already at the top
Paul Murphy is 'improving all the time' - and he is already at the top

Christy O'Connor

In the aftermath of the 2011 League final, when Dublin opened up Kilkenny like a surgeon, Brian Cody immediately went about assessing the damage. Blood was still seeping from the wounds when Cody called a snap meeting 24 hours later, but he also wanted to check if the scars inflicted by Tipperary eight months earlier had sufficiently healed.

That week, Cody and his management conducted personal interviews with every player. Cody was keen to gauge the overall mental and physical welfare of the squad but he was also looking for something deeper: a raw, primal, individual desire that would drive the collective response he was looking for.

Cody got one of the most accurate measurements of the mood from Paul Murphy, a rookie who had only featured in the last five minutes of the League final. When Cody asked him what he was going to do to make the team, Murphy said he was going to work harder, train longer, run faster and do everything possible to get a starting jersey.

A month later, Murphy started his first Championship game. Three years on, Murphy has kept doing exactly as he said he would along a journey which has transformed him into the most consistent defender in the country.

Murphy doesn't have the marquee status of other Cats players but he is still often the most accurate gauge of Kilkenny's temperature. In the drawn All-Ireland final, where every play was a picture in itself, Murphy was central to the narrative of the story through his absorbing second-half battle with Patrick 'Bonner' Maher.

Kilkenny switched Murphy onto Maher to try and limit his influence and the defender had an excellent second half, making ten plays and setting up two points. Yet Maher also made a big impact during that period, scoring a point which could have been a goal, setting up another goal chance and providing assists for two more points. The duel encapsulated the sky-high skill levels, and epitomised how neither team would back down.

Murphy's consistency has been incredible. An All Star in his first two seasons in 2011 and 2012, he was a frontrunner for Hurler of the Year in 2012. Outstanding too last summer, Murphy is in line to win a third All Star in four seasons next month.

The manner in which he set up two points in the second half of the drawn final also showed how he has developed his game from last year. "He is improving all the time," says former Kilkenny hurler Canice Brennan. "Ultra-reliable, he is unquestionably one of the best defenders in the game."

Kilkenny hurling was always stitched into the fabric of Murphy's soul. His late father, Tommy, was a huge figure in the Danesfort club, a lifelong administrator who served as chairman of the Kilkenny County Board from 1986-89, and later as delegate on the Leinster Council.

During his early years, Murphy traipsed around the county and country going to meetings with his father.

"Paul was only nine or ten when Tommy was first diagnosed with cancer," says Pat Treacy of Danesfort. "Tommy said to me at the time that he'd be happy if he could live long enough until the kids (Paul and his sister Katie) were well into their teens. And that's what happened."

Impact

His father's death had an obvious impact on him.

"I suppose it just happened at a difficult time in a young lad's life anyway," says Treacy. "Paul seemed to be in a difficult place when he was on the Kilkenny minor team. He seemed to be struggling for motivation a bit but he was obviously still grieving too."

When Murphy made the Kilkenny minors, nobody doubted his class or potential but it was a difficult period in his life and a lack of conviction and confidence was obvious in both his play and demeanour.

"Paul was a lot better at that time than he believed he was himself," says Brother Damien Brennan, who managed that minor team in Murphy's last year underage.

Gradually, though, his confidence was building. Murphy won an All-Ireland Club Junior title with Danesfort in 2007, a success he still regards as his most important. The following year, he started on the Kilkenny team which won the All-Ireland U-21 title, defeating Tipperary in the final.

Shane Bourke did cause him trouble early on but Murphy grew into the game, proving that the big stage was made for him. Outstanding in the 2009 All-Ireland final defeat to Clare, Murphy captained the U-21 team in 2010.

"His attitude was just fantastic," says Michael Walsh, who managed those three U-21 teams. "I was lucky to work with some brilliant players and great people but Paul stood out. He is a superb guy and he was always superb to deal with.

"His attitude, manner, the way he applied himself, everything about him is top-class."

Murphy had the taste for the big time by then but Kilkenny was teeming with young talent and he had to bide his time. He was brought on to the senior panel for the 2009 Walsh Cup but was dropped afterwards. When he was let go again after early-season trials in 2010, the aftertaste was bitter.

He watched that 2010 All-Ireland final against Tipp on Hill 16 with friends. Murphy got a lift home from one of his mates and he told him that he wouldn't be going out the following evening. He decided to start his training for 2011 there and then.

Once he finally got traction in 2011, Murphy took off. Cody sat him down for a chat at him at the end of the season to keep him grounded but Murphy had already flicked on that default setting.

When he was walking up to accept his All Star in 2011, he admitted to reminding himself that there was probably someone else going to the gym the following morning trying to take his place for 2012.

His steel now defines him. Crippled with an ankle injury before last year's qualifier against Tipp, Murphy declared himself fit and hurled up a storm on the day. That fortitude and discipline has been honed on the field and at work.

"Two things made Paul," says Treacy. "Cody and the army. They both toughened him up big-time."

Qualified as a military policeman, Murphy is a corporal with the Defence Forces. His role in the last nine months has mostly focused on training new recruits.

"He is a very good leader," says Brennan, who Murphy has served under in the Defence Forces. "He has a very good style about him. He's a very polite fella but he is solid when he needs to be and stern when he has to be too.

"He is certainly a guy with great potential, someone who could go a lot further in our organisation."

Outside of hurling, Murphy loves music, especially playing the guitar. He's a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. After Kilkenny won the 2012 All-Ireland final replay, Murphy sang 'Dancing in the Dark' in the dressing-room, with all the players gathered around him.

There was a time when Murphy idolised some of those same players. When he was 15, the family got a pet dog, a Jack Russell terrier. Murphy decided to call it 'Henry Shefflin'.

When he first joined the squad a few years later in 2009, he was so in awe of some of those players with such an iconic status that he admitted to being hardly able to talk to some of them.

Now, Murphy has become the player so many others look up to. "He has developed into an outstanding player and leader," says Brother Damien. "He will be one of the leading lights for Kilkenny for many years. I don't think we have seen the best of Paul Murphy yet."

Still working harder, training longer and running faster. With open road ahead, Murphy can travel as long and as far as his ambition and talent decide.

Irish Independent

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