John Murphy is laughing. He knows how physically big this Carlow side can be considered but then he knows they could be bigger if Sean O’Brien had taken a different playing career path.
Murphy grew up with the Leinster and Ireland rugby player, who is all but sure of taking in this evening’s game against Dublin somewhere in Whangarei on the north island New Zealand where he is currently based with the Lions.
Just who might O’Brien, who has rehabbed training with Carlow in the past, have marked?
As a no-prisoners full-back, Bernard Brogan might have been on his horizon. “Yeah. Or (Diarmuid) Connolly!” smiles Murphy.
Murphy played underage rugby alongside O’Brien with Tullow before the former moved to Blackrock for a year at U20 level.
But when it came to Gaelic football they were opponents: Murphy a Grange man, O’Brien with the Fighting Cocks.
“We would have played each other a good few times and at the same standard. He would have been full-back but he played out around the middle of the field as well. I remember when we were about 16 we played against each other in intermediate championship.”
Murphy feels O’Brien would be lining up in Portlaoise this evening were it not for his rugby success. “He’d be there or thereabouts anyway. He was a great full-back because he was very quick off the mark and he had strength. And he’s hugely driven. He’d like to argue he’d be playing with Tullow but I’d like to think he’d be here.”
Perhaps not since the Cork team under Conor Counihan has there been a more imposing-looking team. “I’d nearly think it is a coincidence,” remarks Murphy. “It’s not anything to do with our game-plan. If you look at our wing-backs and wing-forwards you have Danny Moran, Chris Crowley and Alan Kelly and they are not big men either. It is nearly by accident because our corner-back Conor Lawlor is nearly 6ft4in and he’s not in there because he’s a big man because they have a big full-forward. It’s not like there’s twin towers now; he’s just a very good defender.”
That they are also one of the oldest teams around might explain why so many of them are at their physical peak. At this stage, the team is populated by 28-year-olds who it seems have grown tired of the hard knocks. “In 2011, we beat Louth (Leinster quarter-final) and a lot of names are still there going the whole way through the team. We have an older team but a more mature team now and lads are set in their ways and see there are not too many years left on the clock. That’s why the Wexford result was such an important one.
“Against Louth last year we were two points down with eight minutes to go and we lost by 10 points. Against Wexford (last month), we conceded two sucker goals in the second half. We were four points up and conceded a goal, went three points up again and conceded another goal. You are thinking, ‘are we ever going to get daylight here at all?’ That’s why the pleasure was so nice when it was such a close finish.”
This is Murphy’s 10th season with Carlow having been called up in 2005 prior to a few years committed to rugby after which he returned in 2008. Apart from some time out travelling and returning to rugby, he’s been there ever since but senses a unity in the group now like never before. “I think a lot has to do with the age group and the profile as in there’s a lot of older lads now and a lot of leaders driving the thing on. You have the likes of (Seán) Gannon, (Darragh) Foley and (Daniel) St Ledger. These lads are really driving it on and they are great to look up to. We’d be in training there and the boys are flat out, and you’d be like ‘I have to do that as well.’ It drives everyone on.”
Murphy’s played under six managers – Liam Hayes, Paul Bealin, Luke Dempsey, John Kearns, Anthony Rainbow and now Turlough O’Brien (his break coincided with Andy Shortall’s period in charge). He has high regard for O’Brien’s enthusiasm and his recruitment of Steven Poacher from Down as coach.
“He’s (O’Brien) hugely passionate, he’s driving up and down the country looking at football matches and he’s a massively passionate Carlow man. Even the rest of the lads with him would be and then Steven Poacher brings a different dynamic - he’s just a ball of energy and brings his mindset and a bit of steel to the whole thing.”
We’ve got this far without mentioning Dublin but Murphy knows how much they loom. He’s faced them a few times in the O’Byrne Cup – “we drew with them in 2008 and they beat us in the replay. It was a Wednesday night and it went to extra-time, two lads got sent off. We lost by six points or something in the replay.
“It was great, I was only young and it was kind of a first day out for me. There was a row and the Dubs got behind it, it was great.”
Gauging the atmosphere at Carlow’s press evening last Friday, it would have been easy to mistake the positivity for something else.
Suggest to Murphy this is bonus territory for them and he returns: “Well, it is and it isn’t. If we go into the qualifiers whenever that may be, you still want to win that game. You lose that game and if it is say against a Division 3, Division 4 or even a Division 2 team and we consider it to be a winnable game and we lose…. say like that year against Louth in 2011. That was a great day but we went down to Croke Park and the wheels fell off and it does bring you down. Consistency then is the key and after the Dublin game we want to put in a performance and we want to get a result.
“So it’s very much we are in a good place to do that but we just have to go and do it now.”
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