'I needed to put my best foot forward – I think I’ve done that'
Reds ace hits top form at right time as ambition of Heineken Cup medal comes sharply into focus
Four years into his Munster career, Johne Murphy is happy to have finally returned to the form he displayed on his arrival at Thomond Park.
After joining the province from Leicester Tigers back in 2010, Murphy was quick to repeat the performances he produced in front of the Welford Road faithful. Four tries in his debut season was a satisfying introduction to life with the Reds, but after two hellish years, the 29-year old is delighted to be totting up the numbers again.
Instead of counting tries and appearances, Murphy had to be be satisfied with plotting his way through rehabs and niggles. Finally, he looks to be back to his best.
“I think I'm back to where I was when I first arrived,” says Murphy, who claimed his second Heineken cup try of the season against Edinburgh last weekend. “The first three months I really kicked on when I arrived. Then I got a bit of a knock-back and took a little niggle here and there that stopped my progress.
“I showed glimpses of what I can do the year Tony McGahan left, but last year I couldn't get a run of games because of injury.
“This year I just got as fit as I could, and worked extra hard in pre-season – and it has paid off. I feel like I still have more improvements to make to reach where I want to get to, but I am happy where I'm at. I’m in a really good head space and I'm really enjoying my rugby.”
In the low moments of last year, Murphy was forced to take an honest look at himself. He says retirement never entered his mind, but the realisation that he needed a big 2013-14 season to secure a future in the game was there.
His current form has him pencilled in as one of Rob Penney's starters, but he is still waiting for a look at next year's blueprint.
“From my point of view, (contract) talks haven't started. There is a bit of interest from other places, but I am open to all options,” he says.
“I am really enjoying where I am at the moment, so it's about trying to see what happens and what people come to the table with. It's the same as any year, you know.
“I knew it would be a very difficult year come contract time if I didn't perform. Trying to get something anyway (is tough), but if I didn't impress, there was no way I was going to get the chance to stay here. I needed to put my best foot forward and I think I’ve done that so far, but nothing is won in January.
“Really, I hadn't produced for a year and if I wanted to go anywhere or do anything in the game, I had to produce some good form again.
“And I didn’t want to be remembered from my career as someone that played really well in England, came back and it didn't work out. It was just a year that I had to get stuck in.”
Murphy has already spoken about his relationship with Penney and how their open and honest debate has lit a fire under him. The Munster coach called for more from the Kildare native and Murphy insisted on game time in return. It's been a mutually beneficial arrangement.
But a driven coach has always gotten the best from him, he says. In his Leicester days he worked under Heyneke Meyer, Pat Howard and Marcello Loffreda, but working under new Leinster boss Matt O'Connor also suited his game. He thinks we have yet to see his personal touch on this Leinster side though.
“I still think there is more to come from Leinster under Matt,” he says. “With a new coach coming in it's going to take a while to get what he wants from a group, but that performance in Northampton over there shows just what he is all about.
“That's what he is trying to get them to do and that's what he was all about back in my time under him. He is a very attack-minded coach – when I was in Leicester we had a huge try scoring record, we were top of the try-scoring charts for a couple of years when Mattie was doing the attack. He was very good, I really enjoyed playing under him.
“It would be great for our supporters if we met again in the semi-final. To have the chance of an occasion like that would be incredible. But Toulouse and Toulon are big obstacles to clear before that can happen.”
After a weekend like the last, Heineken Cup talk is instinctively on the tip of his tongue. But Murphy has more tales of woe than most when it comes to the competition.
He was the 24th man last year when Munster exited the competition to Clermont at the semi-final stage, while defeats to Wasps and Leinster in finals in 2007 and 2009 are a blight on his Leicester career. But the chance to turn that record on its head in a Munster shirt is a massive driving force.
“A performance like Edinburgh has been coming for a while, but I still believe there is more to come from us. I reckon there is another 15 or 20pc there for us to work towards, but it is nice to get the reward of a home quarter-final after a tough six games,” he says.
“To have a European giant like Toulouse coming to Limerick will be a huge occasion. And we saw what the place was like on Sunday as well.
“There was so much noise, one of the best I have ever experienced in my career. That was certainly up there with the best days. It was a fantastic.
“I was on the bench the day we lost to Leinster in Murrayfield – the first year Leinster won it, and we also lost the final against Wasps in 2007, my first year with Leicester.
“Last year's semi-final was a wonderful day over in Clermont, but we were a bounce of a ball away from getting a result. But I think we learned from that journey so it's just about trying to get a bit further this year.
“Right now, my ultimate goal would be to have a Heineken Cup winner’s medal in my back-pocket at some stage before my career ends.”