IRFU get their man as Richie Murphy tasked with Ulster rescue

Within days of Ireland's World Cup quarter-final exit, news emerged that Mike Catt would move on from his role as attack coach, at the end of the season. Ritchie Murphy was the name that appeared in most of the resulting letters. But Andy Farrell and the IRFU had other ideas. Leinster's Andrew Goodman will step up to replace Catt. Leinster will then have a role to fill. Murphy's name had been mentioned but the Ireland Under-20s coach had other ideas. And so, apparently, the union did.

Former Ireland Under-20s coach Noel McNamara has found it difficult to move up the Irish squad and has headed to South Africa to take up a senior coaching role with the Sharks. He's now with Bordeaux and is the attacking coach of a team that has mounted 107 attempts (and counting) across the Trophy de Champions and a top 14, this season. Murphy had ambitions to progress as head coach and the Union were keen to keep him in place. All that was missing was a county heading toward a slide. By mid-February, Ulster were honoured, Dan McFarland was thanked for his efforts and Murphy was sent to the M1.

The news was announced on Monday but many Ulster supporters pointed out that the accompanying interview had been pre-recorded the previous week. It was a good thing, then, that Murphy's new side beat a tattered Scarlets side, on the road, to keep the hopes of knockout rugby, and a European Champions Cup qualification, alive.

It has been 18 years since the province has won a title, and nearly a decade since it had a team that looked capable of doing the same. In 2012, Tommy Bowe returned from a successful spell with the Ospreys and teamed up with new coach Mark Anscombe. That summer, there were media interviews to announce a new sponsorship deal. The great trio of Bowe, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris was introduced. The team also included the likes of Johan Müller, Andrew Trimble, John Afua, Nick Williams and Jared Payne. The team that lost the Heineken Cup final to Leinster in May of that year was significantly strengthened. Everything seemed possible.

Richie Murphy shares a joke with Irish scrum coach John Fogarty (Photo by Ramsay Cardy/Getty Images)

There were valid grumbles in the fanbase that outgoing coach Brian McLaughlin had been harsh before, but that faded as a talented Anscombe side won their first 13 games in their first season. They would reach the PRO12 final at the end of the campaign when they were shocked by the tragic deaths of center Nevin Spence, his father and brother in a farming accident. The following season saw them win six of six in their Champions Cup group and clinch the top seed for the knockout stages. They were left complaining about Paine's early red card in a heartbreaking home quarter-final loss to Saracens, and then faced Leinster in the league semi-final. This was the case for Anscombe, who left in the summer of 2014. 10 years on, it is crazy to think that Anscombe's time at Ulster might have been considered a failure. They were so ambitious.

And within four years of the New Zealander's departure, Les Case and Jono Gibbs had tried to fail. Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have had their contracts terminated ahead of a move to France. By the end of the 2017/18 season, Bowe, Trimble, Payne, Chris Henry and Paul Marshall had all retired. When Brian O'Driscoll referred to Ulster as a “basket case”, he had the support of many players and fans but it was hard to argue with him. McFarland came in as a steady assistant, bringing in some former Leinster players (Geordie Murphy and Marty Moore), a couple of Premier League-qualified stars from Ireland (Will Addison and Billy Burns) and promoting the best prospects from the academy.

54 years old [Murphy] He built an impressive coaching resume and earned the opportunity to take the reins as head coach. However, there appears to be significant union influence on appointment.

Six years later, having ditched the 'interim' tag, coach Richie Murphy will adopt a similar template. Shortly after Ulster's announcement, the official IRFU account declared it “great news” for the county. Former Ulster players Mark McCall (Muslims) and Jeremy Davidson (Castris) may have been at the top of others' lists but there has been a big push for Murphy's appointment. The 54-year-old has built an impressive coaching resume and earned the opportunity to take the reins as head coach. However, there appears to be significant union influence on appointment. The “mother ship”, as respected Irish rugby reporter Brendan Fanning calls the union, made the call.

Ulster, with its comings and goings at executive levels, is floundering, and the union has lapsed. David Humphreys left the county in 2014 to take up the position of Director of Rugby at Gloucester. The former Ulster and Ireland club takes over as IRFU Performance Director from David Nucifora. Nucifora was asked, following Ireland's Grand Slam success in 2023, whether the association would consider creating a “fifth province” or taking a stake in a club like the London Irish, just so more promising young players can get top-level experience. Humphrys and many others in the Union would focus on and deal with Ulster first. That's the priority, and Murphy, the company's tough guy, is hired to restore order.

Ulster have endured a mixed season but are buoyed by vociferous support in Kingspan (Photo by Ramsay Cardy/Getty Images)

Springbok winger Stephen Kitshoff has come under some criticism after announcing, four months after arriving in Belfast on a three-season deal, that he would leave Ulster in the summer. In fact, the South African is doing the province a favor and clearing up salary space. The county only have Ian Henderson on a central contract with the IRFU, expiring in July 2025 when Lock 33. Burns is out for Munster next season, and Addison has been linked with a return to Sale Sharks. Angus Curtis retired midway through the season, and Luke Marshall will hang up his boots in the summer. Big stars Dave Ewers and Greg Jones are also leaving. The Sharks' 31-year-old winger Werner Kok – an oddball shot – is the only confirmed arrival.

Murphy has Mauricio Pochettino's reputation for bringing out the best in young players. Ulster and the IRFU will rely on him to bring that skill to a county that has been rightly criticized, over the past decade, for not harnessing enough home-grown talent. Asked about the potential arrival of big names, Murphy said: “We're not looking at high-profile signings but interesting young players. We're not like Manchester City in world rugby – we can't go out and get whoever we need, and that means we need to develop from within.” “Our relationship with the academy must be really strong.”

With creativity in transfers and academy promotions, Murphy is already looking for someone he can build a strong team around.

Neil Fessler reports here Max Deegan has opted not to leave Leinster for a key role at Ulster but they could return to that deep blue well. Hurricanes and New Zealand U20 fly-half Aidan Morgan are being eyed as a potential replacement for Burns, and he comes with the bonus of Irish qualification. Connacht have already signed Ben Murphy and Timmy Lasisi from the wider Leinster squad. Ben Murphy, a respected prospect, is Ritchie's son but his younger brother, Jack, could still head to Ulster. Jack started all five Six Nations matches in the second half for the Ireland Under-20s, as they went unbeaten and finished second on points behind England. If he makes the move, he will be competing with Jake Flannery, James Humphries, David Humphries' son, and possibly Morgan for the No. 10 shirt. An easy takeover for Ireland Under-20s center Wilhelm de Klerk could soon be confirmed. He was with the Leinster underage group but there was no room in the academy hostel.

With creativity in transfers and academy promotions, Murphy is already looking for someone he can build a strong team around. Heading into the 2024/25 season, they have Rob Herring, Tom Stewart (albeit in the same position), Tom O'Toole, Ian Henderson, Alan O'Connor, Nick Timoney, Kieran Treadwell, John Cooney, Stuart McCluskey, James Hume, Rob. Balcon, Jacob Stockdale, and Mike Lowry. It's a long way from the 2010 to 2015 crop, but it's a good rule of thumb. You then have the likes of Harry Sheridan, Dave McCann, Cormac Isochukwu, Nathan Doak, Ethan McIlroy, Jude Postlethwaite and Stuart Moore stepping up, and Scott Wilson showing real signs of promise.

Stephen Kitschoff
The departure of Springbok star Steven Kitschoff a year into his three-year contract sparked controversy but freed up money (Photo by Ramsay Cardy/Getty Images)

Murphy needs the next batch of young players to over-perform and quickly move into first-team options, while remaining competitive. There are high hopes for Bryn Ward, son of Ulster legend Andy Ward, in the back row, while 21-year-old James Macnaby won 14 caps for the Ireland Under-20s during his two-year spell and made three first-team appearances (including That's one in the World Cup.) Champions Cup) wearing the number 8 shirt this season. Josh Stevens and Tom Briggs are back-row options who have also worked with Murphy in the U20s squad. Joe Hobbs and 6ft 8in Charlie Irvine are the best bets to break into the second row next season. While we're dropping a bunch of names, add Ethan Graham (wing), Jacob Boyd (prop), and Nathan Doak's younger brother, Cameron (prop) to the list.

This is not the first time Leinster has found itself central to an Ulster conspiracy. And on Saturday, Murphy can buy some of that time (plus grace and money for the coffers) by turning on his old side.

Richie Murphy has been given a two-year contract, so neither Ulster nor the IRFU are moving away. They recognize the enormity of the task facing the Wicklow native, but expect signs of progress heading into next season. As for this season, the odds of traveling to Thomond Park needing to beat in-form Munster on the final day of the regular season are stark. However, Ulster can secure the knockout stage and the Rugby Champions Cup with victory over Leinster in Belfast on Saturday night.

Leinster will contest the Champions Cup final in London, seven days later, so Ulster and their fans will be watching team announcements closely. Even if Leo Cullen and Jack Nienaber retain some of the big names, the county have confirmed that Hugo Keenan, James Ryan and Will Connors are all in contention for the fixture. This is not the first time Leinster has found itself central to an Ulster conspiracy. Murphy can still prove he's the right man for the job. Time will tell. And on Saturday, he can buy some of that time (as well as grace and money for the coffers) by turning on his old side.


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