Sunday 18 March 2018

Murphy graduating to hurling's most exclusive circle

Paul Murphy has sights set on iconic Cats No 3 shirt

Paul Murphy, Kilkenny, in action against Shane Dowling, Limerick
Paul Murphy, Kilkenny, in action against Shane Dowling, Limerick
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Paul Murphy has just landed himself the most exclusive job in hurling. What's more, it's a challenge and a job that he really wants.

From the moment JJ Delaney shocked the county, his own dressing-room and even his manager with his decision to retire, the high security portfolio was always likely to fall on Murphy's desk.

His performances, chiefly at right corner-back where he has established himself as arguably the best defender in the game over the last four seasons, have demanded a move sideways to the one position that Brian Cody arguably craves stability in more than any other.

On Cody's watch as manager, spanning 16 seasons, only five players have started at full-back in 75 championship games. In his world, all players may be equal but you always get the sense that full-back may be a little 'more equal' than others.

As a full-back himself when Kilkenny won successive All-Ireland titles in 1982 and '83, Cody knows the sharp positional sense, nerve and technical craft required to carry the role.


Take out the first five games, four in 1999 when Canice Brennan played there and the opening Leinster championship game in 2000 against Dublin when Sean Meally earned selection, and that number quickly drops to three.

The list can be qualified even further. For the last two games of the 2005 campaign Noel Hickey was ruled out with a cardiac virus, prompting Cody to delegate John Tennyson with the responsibility of gatekeeper.

Many feel that Hickey's absence cost Kilkenny an All-Ireland title, with Galway plundering five goals - Niall Healy grabbed three - to dismiss them in the semi-final.

Essentially the position of full-back on Cody's championship teams has rested with two players - Hickey and Delaney - who, between them, played there in 68 championship games since the Leinster final against Offaly in 2000.

Hickey played 39 championship games there between 2000-12; Delaney, who first stepped in for the 2006 Leinster championship, was full-back for 29 games.

There were times, like the 2011 All-Ireland final, when Hickey wore the No 3 jersey but took up residency in the corner with the task of tracking Eoin Kelly, prompting Delaney to switch to full-back from wing-back.

In other areas of the field, particularly up front, Cody has tended to keep opponents guessing. Henry Shefflin, for example, has started All-Ireland finals in five different positions.

But the No 3 jersey has required much more long-term leases - not since Tennyson almost 10 years ago has there been another Kilkenny championship full-back.

Even centre-back, the other position where stability has been paramount, has had eight different operators in the Cody era, seven over the same period of time since Hickey first stepped up for that 2000 Leinster final.

It is a remarkable sequence of consistency between two of the greatest defenders the game has known.

Cody is already on record as saying Delaney is the best he has ever seen. It's a sentiment that few would readily dispute given his ability to perform at such a high level in two different positions he made his own.

In last year's league, Cody used three different players - Michael Walsh, Kieran Joyce and Brian Hogan - at full-back in the first four games, but once Delaney was available the experimenting ceased.

Joey Holden has adapted well for Ballyhale Shamrocks but when it comes to June, Murphy already looks like the 'chosen one.'

"I'd love the challenge of playing full-back now," he said at this week's Glanbia sponsorship launch.

"I played corner-back the last few years but I genuinely believe it's a different position again. You really have to hold your position in the full-back line. At corner-back you are available to attack the ball a little bit more.

"I will take any jersey, though. If he plays me corner-forward, I'll play corner-forward.

"But if he asks me to play full-back, I'll take the jersey with both hands."


Murphy knows the scale of the challenge it will be, quoting his predecessor to illustrate the point.

"JJ said it best himself, it's an unforgiving position. If you miss a ball at corner-forward no-one really notices, but if you miss a ball at corner-back, more than likely the corner-forward or full-forward is in and scores a goal.

"You probably don't get the credit you should sometimes.

"A lot of the game is hooking and blocking and working the ball out the field, and you are probably more remembered for the mistakes you make. JJ was an exception in that he had so many great days."

Murphy was no overnight success as a Kilkenny defender - he was twice released from squads after league campaigns.

"What makes you stronger is turning around and saying 'I'm not that player, I've more in me'," he recalled. "Coming in after minor you're up against lads of 25, 26, big strong men who aren't afraid to get stuck in. It can be intimidating.

"It's rare for someone to get straight in after minor; I was one of those players who needed a small bit extra, but I'm better for getting those knocks."

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