IT’s official – Leicester Tigers like to buy Irish. The product it appears seems to fit the profile of the club. They’re guaranteed honest, hardworking lads but one of the great legacies of the link between this country and England’s most successful rugby club is that the arrangement has proved mutually beneficial.
Dusty Hare is a name synonymous with the Premiership club, having represented the Tigers from 1976 to 1989 earning legendary status, but today he works as the club’s chief scout. He has helped a number of Irish players establish their careers at Welford Road – most notably Geordan Murphy – and has resuscitated the careers of others like Cork’s Frank Murphy, whose career stalled at Munster.
It’s a club that sets very high standards, but few Irish players who moved to the Midlands club have failed to match them. The testimony of the Tigers’ coaching staff is indicative of Ireland’s standing amongst the English. Just this week head coach Richard Cockerill described the impact of the Irish at Welford Road. “All the Irish guys that we’ve had here have been really, good, honest, hard-working people,” he said. “We like them. They do a good job, and they don’t talk rubbish.”
Hare perhaps gives the most unvarnished tribute, going as far as to describe an Irishman as the perfect player to have around the club. “They’re clean and tidy and you don’t have any trouble with them,” he says.
The tie between Ireland and Leicester is not just a modern phenomenon belonging to the professional era but the greening of Leicester stretches back two centuries. William Davies and Aubrey Dowson were the first Irish men to make a mark for Leicester in the 1890s. One of their more famous alumni is George Beamish, a rugby star in the 1920s and ’30s. Then there was Paddy Coote, who won one cap for Ireland, before injury ended his rugby career – Coote went on to fight in WWII and was killed in action in 1941.
The club even had Tony O’Reilly on its books in 1958. He played 17 times for the club, the same number of appearances as Brian Smith, the Australian who played a season for Ireland before moving to rugby league in the early 1990s.
Niall Malone, capped three times by Ireland in the early 1990s, played 71 games for Leicester and would have made more but for the presence of South African World Cup-winning out-half Joel Stransky.
At the height of their recruitment drive on this side of the pond, the Tigers had eight Irishmen on their books at any one time, and their presence almost brought the club an historic treble in the 2006-07 season. The Premiership and EDF Cup were attained but they fell short at the final hurdle, losing a Heineken Cup final to an Eoin Reddan-inspired Wasps side.
Gavin Hickie, Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings, Frank Murphy, Paul Burke, Ian Humphreys, Johne Murphy and Geordan Murphy were on their books that season, and the influence of some was never more obvious than on a famous day for the club in January 2007 when the Tigers became the first side to beat Munster in a Heineken Cup match at Thomond Park. The performances of Humphreys, Jennings and Cullen had Pat Howard calling for their inclusion in the Ireland squad. The Tigers had, in many ways, put their Irish players in the shop window for international call-ups, and it wasn’t long before the IRFU began enticing them back to their native provinces with promises of more caps.
Someone who bucked that trend and has represented his country 62 times, while remaining a Tiger – though it hasn’t always been a happy international career – is their most gilded signing from this country, Geordan Murphy. Tomorrow he could become the first Irishman to lift the European Cup for a non-Irish club. Such is his standing at Welford Road – their unpretentious home ground in a city of just 280,000 inhabitants – that Cockerill had no hesitation making the Kildare man skipper after club captain Martin Corry and then his deputy, Aaron Mauger, were ruled out through injury before a league game in early April.
It seems Murphy was always destined for a leadership role in life; the wonder is that it came so late for the 31-year-old. At Newbridge College, he played out-half and inspired the Kildare school to the 1996 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final where they famously came up short against Blackrock College’s ‘Dream Team’. His scrum-half was James Ferris, and the pair popped up on Hare’s radar. Hare travelled to Lilywhite country to see the boys for himself, and on his return he didn’t exactly say to then coach Bob Dwyer that he’d discovered a genius, to paraphrase that famous telegram sent by Bob Bishop who happened upon George Best on a visit to Belfast. But Murphy, nevertheless, got a decent report from Hare, and in time was actually called the ‘George Best of Rugby’ by Dwyer’s successor, Dean Richards.
Murphy has gone on to win five Premiership titles and two European Cups with the Welford Road outfit. Now in his 12th season with England’s pre-eminent club, Murphy’s status is legendary. As a mark of his standing at the club and for his contributions over the year, he’ll be awarded a testimonial along with his long-term team-mate and friend, Lewis Moody, at the end of this season.
According to Hare, there is no official scouting system in Ireland but he does network with his contacts around the country. “I could ring up if someone has come on our radar,” he says, “but it’s likely he’ll be spotted at some of the more unglamorous fixtures on the Irish rugby calendar, scouting for raw talent or untapped potential.
“I haven’t been over this season but last season I came over and saw Leinster ‘A’ play Munster ‘A’. I saw Keith Earls play – I would have liked to have had him, but even he was on Munster’s radar for a long time. In that game I could see that he had potential. I had already watched him play Sevens up in Melrose and I could see that Munster had a real talent on their hands.”
He says he receives many DVDs in the post, a good few coming from Irish addresses. One such package arrived from a certain Johne Murphy, though Dusty had been tipped off about the ex-Newbridge College fullback/winger by the more senior Murphy at Leicester.
“Johne sent me over a DVD of him playing with his old club, Lansdowne,” remembers Hare. “As soon as I saw the tape I thought, we’ll invite him over and have a look at him. He was so upset when he pulled his hamstring in the first week, but he played the second week and the rest is history. He did enough to show the coaches he was ready for the pro ranks. They thought he was someone they could work with – and they have done so. I always find we’re a team here at Leicester – I might spot people, bring them over but it’s the coaches who look at them and make the final decision to keep them.”
He remembers when another future ‘Celtic Tiger’, Frank Murphy, first caught his eye. It was at a schools international when the former CBC student played opposite Harry Ellis, the man who would eventually become Tigers’ long-serving scrum-half. In 2006 the pair became team-mates. “I can remember him playing for Ireland Schools against Harry Ellis and on the day I thought Frank was the better scrum-half. I knew he had potential. He got to play in a European Final and Guinness Premiership final. He wasn’t getting a chance with Munster, but he was someone always on my radar.”
Though competition for places on the Tigers first XV is fierce, Hare describes why the Irish have become success-stories at his club. “They fit in so well because we are a small, family-orientated club. We do like a beer here as well! The Irish just fit very well into our family. I must say there is lots of talent in Ireland. There aren’t that many professional sides to play for over there, and because there are so many talented youngsters there, I feel they could get a chance elsewhere. We play in a very hard league here where we use 40-odd players a season, so it gives room for people to play.”
AT 19, Eric Miller wanted to play professional rugby. The future British and Irish Lion forged his reputation with the Tigers in the late 1990s, but instead of the club going after his signature, the former Leinster and Lions back row forward contacted Tony Russ, Leicester’s then director of rugby, telling him straight out he wanted to join.
“Tony laughed at first, when he heard me say that,” remembers Miller. “It took him aback. I spent a year with a very strong ‘seconds’ team. This was the day before the big professional squads, but ‘seconds’ rugby in England at the time was of a very high standard.
“In my second year there, Bob Dwyer came in and looked at everyone with a fresh face. I got my opportunity and pretty much took it. The timing was good from that aspect.”
He talks of it being his dream of playing for Leicester but the transition from Dublin to life in the Midlands was helped by the presence of family and friends living there.
“There was an Irish couple living there who, when I think about it, were like a third set of grandparents to me. They would be very close to Peter Wheeler (Leicester’s chief executive) but knowing they were there made the move a bit easier.”
He added: “I always dreamed of playing for Leicester. I suppose before the game went professional I’d always wanted to go to Loughborough University to do a sports degree – that’s only 10 miles down the road from Leicester and I thought that would tie in nicely with my rugby.
“Ultimately, I said if things didn’t go well with rugby over there I was half-thinking of playing rugby league. I thought I could earn a living doing that, and going to college.”
He has happy memories of lodging in Richard Cockerill’s house, but on the training ground he had to work hard to be accepted. As the game went professional, outsiders were, at first, treated with scepticism.
“Leicester was a very homely, family-oriented club. I wouldn’t say they were anti-Irish – this was before players started moving around, but it was very difficult to bed myself in at the start. Whether that was a personal thing for me, I don’t know. It wasn’t that I didn’t get on with them, but the fact is they were accepting a ‘foreign player’ at the time. I really had to earn my stripes in there. I think I did that the first year, and it was a lot easier after that.
“I think the English by nature are quite reserved, and they’re quite hard to break down. But I did eventually become part of the family, part of the clan... It took a time to bed in but, when I was in, I was in.”
Miller uses a soccer analogy to paint the position of the English club in the rugby world.
“They’re the Man United of English rugby,” he says. “There’s a striking resemblance there when you consider the Irish link. Unlike other clubs in football and rugby, Leicester don’t bring in a huge amount of imports, something you see at Arsenal or Harlequins, who go totally cosmopolitan. They’ve always just had a small little feeder; they haven’t overdone it, just picked certain players. They’ve developed that over the years.”
It’s something Hare also alludes to: nurturing home-grown talent remains Leicester’s priority but when they dip into the overseas market, they believe their signing needs to be right. And, more often than not, the Tigers have got it right.
“I like to think that 50% of the players who come through for Leicester are from our academy and are part and parcel of what this club is all about. Then we like to have a few Irish lads and a few from the southern hemisphere.
“When we look for an overseas player, he has to be one of the best in the world – like Joel Stransky (South African World Cup winning out-half) was. There’s no point having an overseas fellow who’s just an ordinary player. You need to have somebody who is going to make a difference.”
As for the Irish, they almost always did.