The Big Interview - Paul Murphy
By John Harrington
Such are the demands of the corner-back position in the modern game of hurling that you now see very few men playing in the position into their thirties.
It’s a testament so to the durability and class of Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy that he’s still guarding that patch of grass with the same force and relentless zeal now that he did when making his Championship debut for Kilkenny eight years ago.
The game has changed considerably in the interim, perhaps for a corner-back more than any other player on the pitch, but Murphy has adapted.
The 30-year-old is still capable of lifting his team-mates and dismaying corner-forwards by winning ball high or low and thundering out of defence with it.
But in an era when a corner-back must also be a good enough hurler to demand short puck-outs from his goalkeeper and find a team-mate with an arrowed 30-yard pass, Murphy has proven he has the wrists and wit not just to survive but thrive.
At his core though he remains a warrior above all else. The sort of competitor who relishes the do or die nature of a mano a mano battle against an elite corner-forward in the heat of Championship hurling.
He knows from previous All-Ireland Finals against Tipperary that his mettle will be tested on Sunday, but that’s just the sort of challenge the Danesfort man relishes.
As a hurler he’s as honest as the day is long, and when he sat down for a chat with GAA.ie ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland Final it quickly became apparent he’s a similar character off the pitch as he is on it.
Paul, this stage in your career, does your approach to an All-Ireland Final differ to the earlier ones you would have played in?
I suppose it does. If you’re young and you’re lucky enough to get into one at an early age, you’re a bit naïve and you think – ‘I’ll have plenty of years here now, I’ll have plenty more’. When you get to the latter end of your career, or you get that small bit older, you realise any All-Ireland could be your last. Especially after the last two years as well when we weren’t in All-Ireland finals. To be back here now, as an older player. You really appreciate it.
Not to say you didn’t before, but it’s just a different appreciation you have. Again, more games. When I started my career, it was a case of four matches would get you to an All-Ireland. Maybe three, maybe, would get you to an All-Ireland Final. Now there’s just a huge mountain of matches in front of you. You have to keep fighting. You have to show your strength as a panel. To be at this stage, still in with a fighting chance, there’s a huge appreciation. A little bit different from being a young fella playing in your first All-Ireland final.
You’ve played in a lot of All-Ireland semi-finals, but was the win over Limerick one of the most special you’ve been a part of?
It was. I would say it was probably the best All-Ireland semi-final I was part of. We’ve been part of great ones. The semi-final against Waterford in Thurles in 2016 again was a huge one. It was just the fact that it’s a testament to Limerick.
The regard we held them in was the reason we played the way we did. Likewise the relief we had at the final whistle, we had this enormous challenge in front of us. We’re playing the form team, the All-Ireland champions. A team that had shown savage fitness, savage work rate, everything that goes with being champions.
Yet we went out there and we did what we’d said to ourselves we’d do. Try to outperform them, outwork them and get ourselves to an All-Ireland final. At the final whistle, you could just relax and go ‘we’ve done it, we’re here’. That’s just a brilliant relief, and the pressure is off you then that you can go ‘right, we’re back in an All-Ireland final so we can just go and prepare for it now.’
You’re now very much one of the experienced leaders of this Kilkenny team. Would you have learned a lot from the leaders you shared a dressing-room with when you first joined the panel?
Yeah. I came into a dressing room which was obviously full of (experienced) fellas, but at the same time full of very humble fellas. You might think a dressing room full of all those players with different All-Irelands and All-Stars, people would look at Premiership dressing rooms and see all these…there was never a thing like that. It was a great example for a young player.
It was just players that had their feet on the ground were just going out, not just performing on the pitch but training sessions and whatever it was. Things like that, there was no word spoken but it was a great example for younger players.
As you get to be an older player, you can often think my actions are a lot better than going around being the big fella talking in the dressing room. You need to talk and give your bit of advice and so on, but often times by doing the professional things – approaching training properly, having yourself in the right condition, performing properly, all these different things, young players pick up on that.
That’s the best example you can give, and that’s the thing I’ve learned from the older players. Even just because you’re older, you don’t have any right to slack off. You have to if anything up your game a small bit more.
So you were conscious that you needed to maintain certain standards to set the right example for the young players who have joined the Kilkenny panel in recent years?
Yeah absolutely. I think they understand that as well. Great lads have spoken over the years. Peter Barry always said it that it’s not your jersey, you’re just inheriting it. JJ used to always say that to us as well. Different things like that, it does feed into a culture and a tradition. I think, you know, it’s important to protect that as well. You could have a player that has all the skill in the world, but if his attitude isn’t right, that can feed into a bad culture within the team.
Fortunately, we’ve had great young lads that have come through who respect what is there, respect the culture, know where they are, and know that it’s a great opportunity that they have but they have to respect that opportunity. It’s important to protect that culture and tradition, treating the jersey with respect.
How tough an experience was the 2016 All-Ireland Hurling Final against Tipperary for the Kilkenny full-back line that day?
Yeah, look. It was one of those days. It could happen to you in a league match in the first week of February or it could happen to you in an All-Ireland final. Unfortunately, it happened in an All-Ireland final that day. The fullback line was singled out for our performance that day, but as a team, throughout the time after it, we would have looked at our individual performances. Part of you has to brush it off and say, 'look, it can happen, move on’. It will serve you no good to dwell on it, or to knock your confidence. Obviously, it was very disappointing, but look we’ve moved on from there. It’s three years ago at this stage. If there’s a chance to right any wrongs, if that’s the way to look at it, isn’t it a great opportunity to be in an All-Ireland final now, playing the same team that bet ye three years ago? It has absolutely no bearing on the final.
Even for an individual player if you were involved that day, you just have to think of the team this day, not going out worrying about your own performance or righting any wrongs. It was a disappointing day, that’s all you could put it on down to. Move on from it. We’re now in a position to win another All-Ireland final. If we were to win on Sunday, I don’t think you’d be too concerned about 2016 or you’d be thinking of it. You’d just be delighted that we’re after winning an All-Ireland final and we took the challenge on in the years after it, as opposed to lying down and accepting it as it was.
Talk to me about your colleagues in the full-back line, Joey Holden and Huw Lawlor. Joey had a hard time in the 2016 All-Ireland Final but has been superb so far this year at corner-back, and Huw Lawlor has come in and made the full-back position his own…
Yeah, Joey was there that day (2016 All-Ireland Final) as well. Joey as much as myself came in for criticism that day. I think it’s a great testament to Joey as a player. The fullback isn’t an easy position. You miss a ball further up the pitch and it’s just a missed ball. You miss a ball in the fullback line or as a goalkeeper, it’s a goal or a point. It’s not the most fashionable position to play.
But you see the likes of Joey, who performed unbelievably with Ballyhale this year. When they played down in Thurles in the semi-final, he had a brilliant match in terrible conditions. I think he was man of the match that day. For us this year, again absolutely brilliant. You look at him getting the block on Graeme Mulcahy in the semi-final.
A big block in an important time of the match. He got a wrap on the face, busted his nose and needed a few stitches, but didn’t even flinch when it happened. He just went savage for the ball. It’s brilliant to have a player like that in your fullback line.
Huw Lawlor is a great young player. Going back to what we were saying about having young lads coming into the dressing room. It’s a tough position, but he’s a great athlete. He’s probably had to mark the hardest forwards in the country all year.
It will be no different come next Sunday. But just a great attitude. He’s delighted to be there, delighted to do whatever he can for the team. It’s really just taking on the challenge in front of him. It’s a pleasure to be part of the fullback line, as good as any fullback line I’ve been a part of over the years.
Is it too simplistic an analysis to say that Kilkenny have beaten Tipperary in All-Ireland Finals when they’ve made it a really gritty battle whereas when it’s more of an open game, Tipperary are more likely win?
It’s hard to say. When you’re in the midst of the matches, it’s very hard to call it. They’ve all been dogfights. I look back at the 2014, either All-Ireland final. Any match they’ve come down to just serious little fights and winning the small little battles. I don’t know if it’s as easy to say that when we’ve won those small battles, we’ve won.
But often it’s the case in any match that when you win those rucks, those battles, they can pale in comparison at the time, people think nothing of them, but really they are often winning the matches. It was probably the winning of our Limerick match as well – those small battles, we won them. So it’s probably too simplistic, but at the same time it’s often what those matches hinge on is winning those battles, getting into the hell’s kitchen of it, fighting it out. We’ll all remember the big scores or the goals or whatever it is, but it’s really those small battles that define matches.
How difficult are the Tipperary forwards to mark? How do they compare to the Limerick and Cork forwards?
Tipp will generally hold their position and go at you man for man. But the Tipp forwards, all Cork and Limerick forwards are exceptional players as well. But you know, any time we seem to fight Tipperary or play Tipperary, you’re fighting each position. It’s never a case that they play much of a system. So you’re literally asking players to go out, go toe-to-toe with your man, win your position. It’s not as simple a case as this team plays a system or that team, which other teams do, Tipperary don’t do that.
They just go out, and whatever player goes into your position, you just have to take him on. It could be Seamus Callanan one day, it could be Seamus Callanan the other day. They’re just so able to adapt and move around which is a huge challenge. Do you follow him or do you stay where you are? That’s the challenge with Tipperary.
Individually they’re tough hurlers. Individually they’re all able to hurl. They’re all so well able fight for the ball. They’ve great work rate. So I suppose there’s no system, which sometimes makes it easier, sometimes it makes it tougher because if there is a system, you can fight the system. But when there’s no system you just have to go toe to toe with a player.
You seem like the sort of defender who relishes that sort of battle?
I think traditionally with Kilkenny and Tipperary, that’s usually what it is. I don’t think there is many systems. People just say it’s a case of ‘throw in the ball and off ye go’. So a lot of players, probably with what you’ve grown up with, probably in the last few years systems have come in, so for a lot of the older players this is what we usually go with. It’s just the 50-50.
Any player enjoys that, because it’s what you’re used to really. At the same time, you have to enjoy any challenge that’s in front of you. It’s not up to you to nitpick – I’d rather this or I’d rather that. Effectively we’re playing in an All-Ireland final. Whatever system they play is irrelevant. You’re either going to win the match with your own team, whatever your own plan is, or you can’t be worried too much about ‘well this is the way I like to play’.
Has your perspective changed on hurling as your career has progressed?
No, my perspective hasn’t changed, but you do have a different appreciation for it. I came in at a fortunate time when we were in All-Irelands nearly year-on-year and we had won All-Irelands nearly year-on-year. But again, as is the case, sport will teach you harsh lessons. It’s not as simple as that. We’ve had to fight to get back to this position.
Certainly, there is a new appreciation that, OK, we’ve had to serve our time out in the cold for a while and get back to this position. But that’s part of sport, regardless of whether it’s hurling or rugby. These challenges crop up, you either want to take them on or you want to walk away from them. Thankfully, I’ve been part of teams that wanted to take them on for good, bad or indifferent. It’s just been a great thing to be a part of.
Regardless if we’re losing, you see players coming back saying ‘OK we can do this’. We’ve finally proven to ourselves that we can, here we are in an All-Ireland final. There’s still nothing won yet. But that’s just part of the fight getting back to mentally where you want to be.
It took such a monumental effort to beat Limerick, is there a chance the team might now experience a psychological dip? Or will a win of that nature raise ye to an even higher level?
It’s the same as the whole championship has gone. It keeps evolving. After you win your first match, you’re on a high. Then in our case, Galway bet us and we were on a low. There’s constantly ebbs and flows throughout the year. Certainly coming into this the young fellas are excited, no more than the older players again. You could say after an enormous match like that against Limerick there could be potential as is the case in any situation. When you win an enormous match like that, it can be a case that you can dwell on that too much.
But we have management and players that have been in this position over the years that know that it’s savagely dangerous position to be in that if you take your eye off the final...we’re here to win a final.
If we’re still patting ourselves on the back for beating Limerick, we’re already weakening ourselves and weakening our chances. Let’s not forget that Tipperary had an enormous battle the following day against Wexford. So very similar position to us. It’s important that the Monday we came in, we said all focus is now on the All-Ireland final.
Enjoy that Limerick match in the winter if you want to watch it again. But it will mean nothing unless we beat Tipperary realistically.