There are always whispers and murmurs. ‘Watch this kid, the next big thing.’ ‘An exciting young talent.’ ‘He has a big future in the game.’ Word can spread quickly on the sidelines of a player with prodigious potential.
For three years, Ben Murphy was a standout performer for Presentation College Bray at Leinster Schools level, consistently impressing in his role as Le Petite Générale for the Wicklow school.
Anyone who saw Murphy in action at Energia Park or on his home patch in Bray, knew he was the player people were talking about. The scrum-half kicked, passed, created, scored and marshalled, earning Leinster and Ireland underage representative honours throughout his time in school. Even as one of the smallest players on the pitch, Murphy regularly stood head and shoulders above.
There are too many examples to go through here, but one of Murphy’s most impressive performances in the white of Pres Bray was a Senior Cup first round tie against defending champions Blackrock College at Energia Park two Januarys ago now. The result went as expected, Blackrock advancing through to the second round as they kick-started their quest for a 70th title, but Pres Bray pushed them all the way in an entertaining Monday afternoon contest at Donnybrook.
Despite surrendering an early 15-0 lead to Blackrock, who had future Ireland Under-20 internationals Niall Comerford, Joe McCarthy and Sean O’Brien in their ranks, the Wicklow school mounted an impressive second-half comeback led by Murphy – the son of Ireland skills and kicking coach Richie – in the number nine jersey to run in three tries and give their opponents a real scare.
After the game, Pres Bray Director of Rugby, Kevin Conroy, enthused that it was the best performance from the school at Senior Cup level in two decades, even accounting for the underlying disappointment of the 25-19 scoreline. And anyone in attendance that day watching Murphy buzzing around the pitch, passing sharply off both sides, and pulling the strings would have been similarly encouraged. Like father, like son.
Yet, here’s the thing. Murphy, having coming up through the Leinster underage and national development pathway to feature in the Under-20 Six Nations for Ireland this season, is indeed following in his father’s footsteps, but is very much treading his own path in the game too. So far, his journey to the green jersey with Noel McNamara‘s young side hasn’t been without it’s hurdles, but is testament to the 19-year-old’s tenacity, self-motivation and inner drive.
There have been notable setbacks along the way for Murphy – being told he was too small to play rugby, not making the ‘A’ team during his first year at Pres Bray and then suffering a serious injury at the end of second year – but he rebounded on every occasion, firstly to stay in the game he loved when others would have been deterred and then work even harder to get to the level required. In third year, he was the starting scrum-half in the Junior Cup team and, in many ways, he hasn’t looked back since.
For the entire Murphy family, it was a special moment when Ben came off the bench to win his first Ireland Under-20 cap against Scotland in the Championship opener at Irish Independent Park back in February, and he would go on to feature in the wins against Wales and England before the outbreak of Covid-19 halted Ireland’s Grand Slam tilt.
“It was an incredible experience to play at that level and in front of big crowds in Cork,” he tells IrishRugby.ie. “The level of support was just so new and the step up in intensity was huge. You’re always told every step on the ladder is a step up in intensity but you don’t really know what it’s going to be like until you’re out on the pitch in that green jersey. It was a great dressing room to be in and overall a huge learning experience for sure.”
Earning his Ireland Under-20 cap was a significant milestone for Murphy, having progressed through the underage systems and after gaining exposure and experience with Leinster at Under-18 and Under-19 inter-provincial level, while also representing the Ireland Under-18 Schools squad, sponsored by PwC, at last year’s Under-18 Six Nations Festival in England under Peter Smyth, the IRFU’s Head of Elite Player Development.
It was, however, the endless hours of work and practice sessions on the pitch at Pres Bray, just a stone’s throw from the family home, that helped really drive Murphy’s development in his formative years. In addition to training with his team, Ben was relentless in his pursuit of betterment. On any given Saturday, he and his younger brother, Jack, could be seen kicking, passing and throwing balls, while being guided through different drills by their father.
“Rugby has always been in our house,” Ben explains. “I vaguely remember being at games when my Dad was coming towards the end of his playing career with Old Belvedere and I started playing myself when I was five with the Seapoint minis.
“Since then, I’ve just loved playing and being involved in rugby and that’s been the big thing. There has been no pressure from anyone to play and that has kind of helped me just find my own way.”
Leaning on the experience and expertise of his father has no doubt been an invaluable learning and development tool for Murphy as his own career has progressed, firstly in school and then along the underage ladder, but simply being Dad and providing that unconditional parental support has been just as important for Richie as he’s watched Ben develop and mature on the pitch.
“Ben would have been running around the sidelines chasing balls when I was player/coach with Old Belvo,” the Ireland skills and kicking coach recalls. “He would have been four or five at that stage so it gives you an idea of how much he has been around the game. To see him come from the minis all the way up through and play for his country at Under-20 level was obviously a very proud day for myself and Stephanie, his Mum.
“I think what has been important all along, and it’s the same for my other son Jack who is 15 now, is that I’m there as a sounding board for them or there as someone who can give them advice but it’s up to them to ask. It would be very much up to themselves what they’re doing and what they want to do. And if they ask for advice or want my opinion on something, they always get the truth. If they were good, you tell them they were good but if they weren’t, you help them learn, find solutions and become better players.”
Ben adds: “I think it was important that before anything else and before all the coaching and advice, it was just important that he was a Dad. He’d come up and collect and kick the balls back for me and help me wash my boots after games. There’s that balance there I suppose and he has always been very good at managing it and helping me learn rather than forcing me to learn from him.”
Much of that learning process has taken place on the pitch at Pres Bray, a school the Murphys have a strong affiliation to given Richie’s father, uncles and cousins went there, with Ben and Jack now continuing that tradition through the generations. Although it’s not considered as one of the province’s traditional rugby powerhouses, Ben – who also followed in his father’s footsteps by making his Energia All-Ireland League debut for Clontarf before Christmas – recognises the enormous contribution the school and coaches have played in his personal development.
“I didn’t get on the first team in first year,” he remembers. “And then I got a bad injury at the end of second year but the coaches really looked after me and helped me get back. Olan Savage really helped me get to a stage where I was physically able to play and I would still have a great relationship with Kevin Conroy, Maurice Logue and Joe Duffy. They all just helped me in whatever way they could and got me whatever I needed, whether it was just getting the grass cut on the pitch so I could go out and practice kicking.”
Richie, who memorably guided Pres Bray to Leinster Junior Schools Cup success in 1990 when he kicked all their points in the final against Wesley College, adds: “There are a lot of good people in the school and they’ve helped Ben along the way. The facility is literally a kilometre up the road from where we live so Ben has spent a lot of time up there practicing and still does. If he’s going to do his running or a bit of kicking he can just head up and they’ve looked after him really well. Even now, he’s out of school a year, but he still has full access to the place and teachers going by would know who he is because he’s always out on the pitch doing his bit of work.”
It is that application, discipline and work-ethic that has contributed massively to getting Murphy to this juncture. Having witnessed first-hand the sacrifices required and meticulous demands of playing at the very highest-level through his Dad’s day-to-day role on Andy Farrell‘s management team, Ben has been able to shape his own mindset around those insights. He knows this is only the start and there is much work to do.
“He has kind of got me to the stage now where I just get on with my own business and my own training and if there’s anything I need it’s up to me to ask him,” the young scrum-half says.
“My Dad’s knowledge of the game is obviously extremely helpful and I’m blessed really to almost be his guinea pig in terms of the detail we can go into around box-kicking and passing, for example. He’ll also help me review games too which is a big help because he sees things I won’t.”
In addition to the sessions on the pitch, the Murphys use an underground carpark near their house to get in extra skills work.
“We do get a few weird looks from people coming home from work though,” Ben laughs. “But it’s very useful, just being able to get those reps in whether it’s passing off both sides or doing some other technical work.”
Richie continues: “For Ben at scrum-half and it being a technical position, I would have been able to give him good technical feedback at the start in order to make him technically sound but a lot of his drive has come from within rather than coming from myself or Stephanie from the outside.
“If he asks for advice I’ll give it to him but the big thing for me now is having been involved in high performance environments, you have to show that you’re progressing and moving forward. So when I’m asked for advice, I’d always be encouraging him to add something to his game or add something to himself as a person that is going to make him better going forward.”
Currently in the Leinster sub-academy, Ben’s immediate focus during this indefinite break from rugby has been on his upcoming first year college exams from UCD, where he is studying Economics and History, while this window has also presented him with the opportunity to make incremental gains across areas of his game he wouldn’t ordinarily get the chance to during the season. Not content to dwell on how far he has come, the teenager is determined to continue improving.
“I think the big thing for me is just to make sure I’m a better player than I was when we finished the Six Nations,” he adds. “I’m underage again next year for the Under-20s and I’d love to be involved with that and hopefully things fall into place elsewhere. I can’t control what happens with the Leinster Academy or if I’ll get picked for this and that but I know I can keep getting better.”
As for Richie, like any parent, all he wants is for Ben to continue enjoying the game through whatever career path he takes.
“The one thing that has always stood out is how hard Ben works,” the former Leinster out-half concludes. “He has had to work very hard to get to where he is and sometimes that is what’s required. There would be guys out there who might have more X-Factor than Ben has but what he has managed to do is be very diligent in everything he does to try and get the best out of himself. That’s what has driven him to where he is now and will probably be the driver for him going forward as well.”