Ulster players' approval made Murphy move feel inevitable

Richie Murphy at Kingspan Stadium
Murphy has been made permanent Ulster boss after six games in interim charge [Getty Images]

Even in the immediate absence of the famed new manager bounce, the response from Ulster's players to Richie Murphy's arrival on a caretaker basis always made his permanent appointment feel a near certainty.

The former Ireland Under-20s coach was named head coach of the province on Monday, signing an two-year deal at Kingspan Stadium to replace Dan McFarland.

Having arrived fresh off the underage Six Nations at the end of March, Murphy's record as interim boss reads played seven, won four, lost three.

Ulster exited the European Challenge Cup with a heavy defeat to Clermont under his watch but, now sixth in United Rugby Championship, have utilised a three-game win streak to improve two positions in the table since McFarland departed after five and half years in charge.

With his first pair of games taking the side to South Africa, and each of his opening four played away from home, Murphy spent his first month in post bereft of training time, lucky to get more than one full pitch session a week.

His most pressing task was to improve the mood of a group that scrum half John Cooney last month said were not even enjoying their victories in the winter.

Inheriting a team that had lost 16 of their past 32 games prior to his arrival, the former Leinster and Ireland skills coach was realistic in his initial appraisal.

"I think the honesty was a bit of a reality check that we are actually not where we need to be," said flanker Marcus Rea.

"It was more a realisation for players that we are not in the same position that we have been in years gone by where we have played really well and we have been on a hot streak.

"It has definitely been a good reality check for guys to sort of look at themselves and go 'what am I doing?' or 'what has slipped with habits?'

"Richie is a really good fit for us, he is very honest and has his detail nailed down."

Murphy's forensic eye has impressed others too, with Harry Sheridan having said after last month's clunky victory over Cardiff that the onus was on the players to more effectively implement the change that the new coach had been attempting to instigate.

“The micro detail that he is emphasising every time is something that I have been trying to get after," said the forward, who has been one of the real beneficiaries of Murphy's arrival.

"He is bringing the best out of us now and there is a lot of work that needs done by the players on the pitch to deliver the stuff that he is preaching to us."

When Murphy arrived much was made of his track record of improving young players with the Ireland Under-20s, who won a pair of Six Nations Grand Slams during his tenure. The likes of Sheridan, Scott Wilson and Cormac Izuchukwu are among the recent Academy graduates to earn more minutes.

Given the well documented financial constraints at Kingspan Stadium, there is a pressing need not just to trust the less experienced, but also to improve the recent form of senior players in a squad whose results have not matched their talent level over the past 18 months.

The 34-year-old John Cooney cited a conversation with Murphy as one reason for his player of the match performance against Benetton last month.

"I sat down with him and he said my kicking is brilliant but I have so much more than that to my game that I need to start showing it again," Cooney said. "I probably did fall back on that a bit too much.

"It's been great to have Richie. It's been great to have him notice certain habits I'd slipped into that I need to stay on top of. He just wants me to play quick and he talks about my skillset being good enough to do that.

"He's helped me and rejuvenated me in that regard."

Richie Murphy with Jonny Bell
There will be questions now over how Murphy fills out his coaching ticket [Getty Images]

With two games left this season, in the weeks ahead it will be viewed as imperative that Murphy leads Ulster into the URC play-offs and qualifies for next season's Champions Cup.

Beyond that, the loss of influential players like Steven Kitshoff and Billy Burns this summer will not make the task any easier for the new boss, while key centre James Hume will miss a chunk of next season through the knee injury he sustained last month.

How Ulster further bolster Murphy's squad and fill out his coaching ticket remain, among others, questions still to be answered.

At least, with the move from a deal that ran only until the end of this season to one that ties Murphy to Kingspan Stadium until 2026, both he and the side can now look ahead with a sense of stability that has been lacking in recent months.