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Jordi Murphy: Why Paul O'Connell is Ireland's best answer to Michael Jordan


Jordi Murphy says Paul O'Connell shares some qualities with Michael Jordan.

Jordi Murphy says Paul O'Connell shares some qualities with Michael Jordan.

Jordi Murphy says Paul O'Connell shares some qualities with Michael Jordan.

As the coronavirus lockdown stretches into its third month, Ulster's Jordi Murphy is no different than the rest of us when it comes to seeking out a sporting fix.

A supporter of Barcelona FC having been born in the Spanish city, last weekend saw him switching over to German football and trying the Bundesliga for a first time while Netflix has been providing another welcome distraction.

Fond of NBA basketball, the 29-year-old has been devouring 'The Last Dance', a ten-part documentary series detailing Michael Jordan's final season and sixth championship with the Chicago Bulls that premiered in April.

A fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into the mind and world of a singularly-driven, once-in-a-generation sportsman, Murphy admits the weekly drop of two episodes from the ESPN production has been something to look forward to during long days stuck in the house.

"It's been one of the highlights of my week," said the flanker. "Every Monday morning I'm straight on Netflix. I'm glad they staggered it out because it's the kind of thing I could have seen myself watching for ten hours in a row. It was class.

"It's one of the best sports documentaries that I've ever seen. There are some pretty good learnings for everyone to see the level of commitment and heart that he puts into his craft. It was pretty incredible."

Reprising some of the controversies first raised in 1992 by Sam Smith's 'The Jordan Rules' regarding just how close the five-time Most Valuable Player and global megastar's fierce intensity and motivational techniques verged upon bullying of team-mates, Murphy recognised some, but crucially not all, of the traits in one similarly revered figure of Irish Rugby.

"Someone like Paul O'Connell, I only got to play with him for the last two or three years of his career but he was one of those people who didn't leave anything to chance, was always so well prepared and looked after himself incredibly well," Murphy said of his former national captain.

"He'd had a few injuries earlier in his career but even the time that he put into the extras in the gym and in the video room, he was a pretty incredible competitor and it showed on those times when I played for Ireland with him and the odd times that I got to play against him when he was at Munster.

"But when you look at Michael Jordan, he seemed to scare a lot of his team-mates, Paulie wasn't quite like that. Everybody would have had the utmost respect for him but he was a great guy as well so he was the best of both worlds."

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Other than reliving the glory days of the NBA in the 1990s, Murphy has found lockdown an odd experience, the uncertainty of not knowing when he and his team-mates will even be able to resume group training producing an anxiety different to the often arduous road to recovery from long-term injury such as the ACL tear he suffered in 2016.

"I'll be honest with you, it's been tough," he said. "For the first while, it's all very foreign and no one really knew what was going on. One week to the next we thought we were going to be playing games and out of nowhere, you're told you can't even come into the facility and train anymore, that you've got to be away from the squad.

"The first few weeks was okay because it was new and you had the motivation there. But as time goes on and there's that bit of uncertainty and you don't really know what lies ahead, there have been some days where it's been tough to get motivated, especially when you're doing things in an isolated manner and training on your own.

"I've been trying to stick to a bit of a routine, make sure I do a bit of training three or four days a week. I managed to nick a bit of gear from Ulster before we finished up in there, got a bike and a couple of weights for the garage. I've got some playing fields near me, so I've been tipping away at a bit of training.

"I've been up here in Belfast since the lockdown happened so I haven't seen the family in a couple of months now and I haven't been with the playing group in nine or 10 weeks as well.

"The uncertainty of not knowing when things are going to be back has been tough so I've definitely felt a bit anxious in the last while, which is a feeling that I've never really had before. Trying to deal with that has been tough so I've been chatting away to family and friends, making sure I get out and get some exercise, that definitely helps."

One recent provisional date for Ulster's return to training has already passed with the current best-case scenario likely to be behind closed doors fixtures scheduled for the Aviva Stadium in late August and requiring something akin to a pre-season beginning in early July.

"Like everyone else, I'd like a bit more clarity but unfortunately we just can't have it at the moment," Murphy added. "I don't really know how things are going to play out in the next few weeks. You've just got to be optimistic that hopefully we'll be told soon enough what lies ahead and when we can start coming back in in small groups and playing again. But at the moment, I don't know much more than anyone else, which is not a lot."

With a new contract in hand tying his future to Ulster and Ireland until the summer of 2022, when rugby does finally resume, one of Murphy's goals will be to regain his place in the Ireland squad.

The former Leinster flanker made it to the World Cup in Japan last year as an injury replacement for Jack Conan, injuring a rib against Russia in Kobe on the occasion of his only appearance. And while he performed well on the big stage of the European Cup when back with Ulster, he did not feature in either new coach Andy Farrell's Christmas get-together or the ultimately postponed Six Nations.

Having originally moved north from Dublin citing his continued international ambitions, the 30-times capped back-rower hopes he has not pulled on the green jersey for the last time.

"It's definitely one of the biggest factors," he said of how Irish hopes played into his decision to recently sign on for two more years in Belfast. "We all know if you're not on the island of Ireland, you're not going to play for Ireland.

"Obviously I haven't been in the squad after the World Cup and for the Six Nations but I think as long as I'm playing in Ireland, I'll have ambitions to play for Ireland. If I get picked in squads, it'll be a reflection of how I'm playing for my province. It's good all round. I definitely hope that my Ireland days aren't over. One of the goals I set out at the start of each year is to get as much game time for Ireland as possible.

"In fairness to Faz (Andy Farrell), he's very good. He rang me before that Christmas camp and said they were going to bring in some new faces and that I'd had some good games but maybe not consistently enough. He gave me a couple of things to work on and I went back to the drawing board. Around that Christmas period, I didn't do enough to get picked for the Six Nations unfortunately.

"It's obviously very disappointing when you don't get picked in those kind of situations but it's happened to me before and, as I say, it's back to the drawing board. I've talked with some of the coaches at Ulster about how I can improve my game and that's all you can do really.

"There's plenty of set-backs in a game like rugby and you have to move on and try to find a way to get picked.

"Hopefully in the future I will find that way."

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