Monday 19 February 2018

Johnson lauds 'brilliant' Murphy but remains focused on task

David Kelly

David Kelly

It wouldn't be unusual for Martin Johnson to include a modicum of caution with his obvious delight at hearing the news of the gloriously enigmatic Geordan Murphy's latest international revival.

Delight because the pair soldiered on so many occasions in the familiar green and white jumpers of the Leicester Tigers; caution because today the England manager knows that Murphy, recalled for the umpteenth time, is capable of doing anything on a rugby field.

"It's fantastic for him, he's a fantastic player," said Johnson, at a typically informal English media briefing, far removed from the utterly stilted Irish equivalents.

So did he contact his old team-mate? "Yeah, I texted him but he didn't text back, apparently he's gone all big-time!" Johnson smiles.

"Yeah, it's great for him. He didn't play much in 2007 and missed the previous one. When he got hurt in January, I thought maybe he's gone.

"It's how things go, isn't it? I don't know if he thought he was going to get there but they've had a couple of injuries."

Johnson and Murphy were part of the awesome side that compiled back-to-back Heineken Cup and English Premiership doubles in 2001 and 2002, but it is an earlier memory that immediately springs to Johnson's mind when he recalls the gifted Newbridge prodigy.

A filthy, windswept Saturday afternoon at Coventry's Coundon Road stadium in January of 1998 marked Johnson's first inkling of the remarkable talent who would later become one of the English game's foremost flair players.

Johnson already knew the frail figure, for Murphy and fellow Irishman James Ferris, a young scrum-half, were lodging with Mr and Mrs Johnson in their pretty home in the picturesque village of Market Harborough.

Coventry, a storied name of yore but now on the verge of extinction, took an early lead. "I thought, 'oh no, here we go'," recalls Johnson. His team were minus some star names -- Greenwood, Serevi, Rowntree, Cockerill, Corry and Ireland star Eric Miller.

Then the Coventry scrum-half miscued a garryowen, Leicester's winger misjudged the catch and the ball bounced to Murphy, virtually on halfway.

"He's got the ball, he's lined up the drop-goal. And you're looking at him, going 'oh no, don't do that!' You think 'he's going to slice it away miles off!'

"But it went straight through the middle. We won pulling up. He didn't really nail down a starting place for a few years after that. But he's always been a brilliant talent."

Perhaps more appreciated for club than country? "I can't speak for how Ireland appreciate him, but we quite liked him at Leicester," grins Johnson. "He's been there for bloody ages!"

While Johnson admits his current side may not have the same sense of angst that propelled his 2003 side to World Cup glory, he feels that Ireland are well-primed going to New Zealand.

"They're a pretty veteran group who have done well," he says. And they'll be desperate to achieve in a World Cup which is something they haven't done. They've only got one quarter-final of the last three tournaments haven't they?"

In the context of both sides' anxiety heading into today's fixture, the desperation for both a win and a performance prompts a typically Johnson-esque maxim. "Happy and content is not a place for an elite sportsman to be."

Irish Independent

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