Paul Murphy, a four-time All-Ireland and All-Star winner, has enjoyed every part of his Kilkenny hurling adventure
It’s hard to believe, but the All-Ireland final will mark the end of Paul Murphy’s eighth championship season with the Kilkenny senior hurlers.
To tweak the old saying, time flies when you’re winning trophies!
The four-time MacCarthy Cup winner and four-time All-Star is experienced enough to know what goes into preparing for the big day, but he can still take time to appreciate everything surrounding it.
“There’s a lot that goes with All-Ireland finals that doesn’t apply to other games, the hype and everything else, but you have to enjoy it,” he said. “If days like this are coming your way then you’re doing something right but you have to keep your head tuned to the big day. It’s the match which is the most important aspect.”
And while he may have seen it and done it before, the enjoyment has never dwindled.
“When you come in first you have this raw energy; you’re happy you have a jersey and that you’re going out playing a match in places like Croke Park,” he said. “I suppose the case now, especially after missing out on an All-Ireland the last two years, is that you have this appreciation that the moment is here now - you don’t know when your next one is going to be.
“When you’re younger you just think you’re going to be here every year and it’s always going to be great, but certainly now you soak up as much as you can. You know you have so much to do before the game, but the enjoyment doesn’t fade.”
Mention of the fallow years has put the 2019 campaign into perspective. Many people didn’t think Kilkenny would be involved in the reckoning this year, so to be in the shake-up for Liam MacCarthy is all the more pleasing for the players.
“It’s hugely satisfying, more to the point that we proved to ourselves that we’re capable of making the final,” the Danesfort man said. “We have been capable of it over the last few years but we just didn’t do what was necessary. To be able to do it now, to not sell yourself short - to go out and do it - that’s been the most satisfying aspect.
“You have enough on your plate to worry about how other people see your performances,” he added. “We know that if we’re not in an All-Ireland final then we’re not playing to the best of our abilities - and we’re the first to know that. The last few years have been disappointing, but we don’t feel we have to prove it to anyone only ourselves.”
Others might dwell on the past - not the players.
“Over the last decade or two we’ve been spoiled for All-Ireland finals,” he said. “We’ve fortunate to have been part of a county that’s competed year on year to be in that final.
“Anything less than that and you’re disappointed, which is a good thing in a way as it shows your standards and expectations are so high. Part of that can feed into the idea that you expect to be there, which isn’t the case - it’s a tough battle, made even tougher by the round robin and the extra matches you have to play, not to mention players leaving and new ones coming in.
“That’s all part and parcel of the game, as much as any sport, but to see these players take on the challenge, learn from the losses we’ve had over the last few years and to develop on what we’ve worked on to get to this stage is what it’s all about. It’s about taking on that challenge, win, lose or draw. We’re back here now for the right reasons, regardless of what people might have said about us. That’s a very satisfying feeling, to not sell yourself short.”
Although still in its infancy, Murphy reckons Kilkenny have learned plenty of lessons from the new round robin championship format, not least how the panel depth is key.
“Years ago, coming into a match you might have had three or four weeks of a run-in coming into a game, so you had savage time to prepare,” he said. Even if you picked up a knock, four weeks was a long time to get a player right.
“With the round robin now every team is learning that you can prepare for one team this week, but when you’re playing another next week you have to look at how you’ll prepare for them too. Even if you pick up a small knock a player won’t be ready for the next week, so every set-up is trying to learn how do you deal with this.
“I think the only way to deal with it is to have a big panel,” he said. Many people have said that the team is changing, but that’s the case when you have seven or eight matches and they’re coming so close together - you have to have players who are ready and waiting, who are hungry to come in. That’s been the biggest learning curve, but I think every team is still learning how to deal with those challenges.”
While the large panel is an asset, Murphy hasn’t needed a break - he has played every game and been injury free. To be able to say that at 30 is most pleasing.
“It’s a testament to the back room team and the strength and conditioning work,” he said. “Touch wood I haven’t been too bad with injuries over the years - I’ve done hamstrings and AC joints - but the work the physios and the teams do is incredible. They are the ones telling us the work we have to do daily. We turn up for training and have our programmes laid out for us and, if we’re injured, we have the best physios working on us. Certainly, when you go home you have to get your rest, eat properly.
“There is a satisfaction for me that the things that got me on to the panel and the team are still standing to me - the body feels great,” he added. “I’m in the 30s age group now, something a lot of people would look at negatively, but in my mind if the brain wants to go there then the body will go there. I’m still loving it, still feel as good as I ever have.”
He’s not the only ever-present in the starting team, with Huw Lawlor and Paddy Deegan starting every game too. For a defensive team to have that consistency is key to building a solid foundation in a side.
“It steadies any team to have players who are consistently in there,” he said. “Other players were unfortunate, maybe through injury or whatever, to miss out but having players who are getting the constant round robin games stands to you. You get that match fitness up, while you also learn to read each other’s game, which is a huge thing.
“You can almost tell what a player is going to do when a ball is coming in their direction and that, if you support them, you’ll get the pass. They’re small things, but they’re things you’ll only learn in a match. Thankfully we’ve had a core group who’ve been on the pitch, we’ve had to make small tweaks to keep the show on the road, but it’s been great for the consistency in our defence. It can only stand to a team as the championship goes on.”
Kilkenny are also in the happy position of getting key players back from injury as the season has progressed.
“Brian (Cody) always says we’ve a panel of players, so we never look at it as being short anyone,” he said. “Even though we were missing players it’s brilliant that we took the attitude ‘we’re getting on with it’.
“We’ve picked up returning players along the way, guys who are savagely hungry and have come back into it - people like Cillian Buckley, Walter Walsh and Richie Hogan. They’ve shown the hunger to get back into the team or to come in off the bench and make an impact.
“That feeds into the whole panel,” he continued. “It’s great for a panel to see a player with however many medals is still fighting for a jersey. It’s great to have that characteristic in the panel.”
And that hunger will be key for a final clash with Tipp - as if the team needed any incentive!
“You can have game-plans all year and be preparing for different teams, but when Tipperary come along it seems to be a different story altogether,” he said with a smile. “I’ve never been part of a bad match with Tipp since joining the panel in 2011, whether it’s a league match in February or an All-Ireland. Whatever we bring out in each other it’s a great rivalry to have - you’d dream about it in any sport.
“We’re lucky enough to have it, but we also know what we’re facing,” he added. “Nothing less than 100% will get you across that line.”