Former Derry footballer Rory Murray living the dream at Bristol Rugby
Rory Murray moved to Desertmartin having never heard of Gaelic football. When he retired from the sport 14 years later, he went as an All-Ireland minor and freshers winner, a MacRory Cup final captain and a National League starter for Derry. Now he is Head of Medical Services at one of the English Premiership's biggest clubs. Cahair O'Kane hears his story...
WHEN Rory Murray arrived to his father’s homeplace of Desertmartin as an 11-year-old, he had literally never heard of Gaelic football.
Eugene Murray was a MacRory Cup winner with St Patrick’s Maghera in late 1970s, but he had spent little time around the mixed south Derry village where he was born.
After boarding at St MacNissi's, Garron Tower on the Antrim coast, then heading to St Pat's for his A-Levels, he took up residence in Carrickfergus where he met his future wife, Celine Arkins. There wasn’t much in the line of GAA in the east Antrim town.
Yet within seven years of moving to the family farm in Desertmartin and first laying eyes on an O’Neills ball, Rory Murray had won an All-Ireland minor title with Derry and captained St Mary’s Magherafelt to a MacRory Cup final.
He would go on to win an All-Ireland freshers as captain and play four years of Sigerson football with Jordanstown, losing the final in 2007, the year in which he played his one season of inter-county football with Derry.
And then in 2010, at the age of 25, he retired from the game completely after defeat in a nondescript club championship defeat by Séan Dolan’s to pursue his first love, rugby, and to sate his thirst for a career in the game.
It proved a wise decision as he now finds himself in the lucrative world of the English Premiership.
But while he was also a keen and talented rugby player with Rainey Old Boys in Magherafelt, it’s fair to say his is a name you probably don’t recognise.
The 32-year-old is Head of Medical Services for Bristol Rugby, where he recently celebrated his five-year anniversary with the club having moved across from Ulster in early 2012.
It’s a far cry from finding his feet in Gaelic football through the club in Desertmartin and the school teams that he still cherishes to this day.
“The school teams were the purest involvement in sport I’ve had. I look back on those days extremely fondly. Probably my favourite playing days are from St Mary’s.
“It ended in defeat and it took time to reflect on it as a positive but I do that now. Schoolboy football is as pure as it gets.”
Yet his natural inclination has always been to rugby. He’s never watched a full soccer match and when there was sport to be talked in the Murray house, it was always about the oval ball.
For one so talented, though, he never really found a home to call his own in either sport.
He skippered that St Mary’s side that lost to St Patrick’s Maghera in the 2003 decider from wing-back, yet won his Colleges Allstar at corner-forward.
He started four games in his sole season with Derry. Paddy Crozier gave him his debut at corner-back against Westmeath, played him corner-forward against Kildare the following week, wing-half against Armagh and then back to corner-back for Laois and Down.
Injury ruined his hopes of playing in the Championship and that was to be it. His Derry career comprised five games, even though he had the talent for more.
His rugby experience was similar in a way. Although he played most of his career in the back row, he found himself everywhere from hooker to full-back at some stage in his all-too-brief career.
“I kind of laugh about it but when I played rugby, people said you could tell I was a Gaelic footballer. And when I played Gaelic, people would say there were obvious rugby traits.
“My soloing was untidy. I hadn’t a laser kick-pass by any means. But I did handle the ball well.
“When you took my game to the top, you could see the little chinks in the armour where I’d arrived late and I wasn’t as practised as other boys would have been, with a ball in their hands all their lives,” he says, all too modestly.
His commitment to playing began to come under strain when he moved on from Sports Institute NI to a job as senior academy physio with Ulster in 2009.
Within a year, his Gaelic football career was over and despite his attempts to continue playing rugby through his early days at Bristol, his time was quickly up there too.
“I’d made up my mind for a while that I was going to stop playing [football], for two reasons.
“I really wanted to immerse myself in my career.
“I knew my time was up at the age of 24. Things were starting to take off with Ulster, I was committed to them a lot of evenings and weekends.”
He slipped off the scene and began to chase a dream that was born when he was first sent to see Derry physio Sean Moran after getting injured training with the county minors.
“I guess I was just transfixed by it [the work], and it was something I felt could do my way,” he says.
And now he finds himself with the responsibility of making decisions on not on the availability of players for a Premiership rugby club, but their welfare as well.
His enthusiasm for furthering his own knowledge was part of what made him set up home on the Welsh border.
A rugby hotbed – it has the most clubs per capita in Britain – he knew that the nearby University of Bath was regarded as something of a research centre for rugby medicine.
Not only did he complete his Masters there, but he now lectures part-time to upcoming Physiotherapy and Sports Therapy students, hoping to mould them and eventually bring the best beneath his wing at Ashton Gate.
Bristol is home now, to his wife Rebecca and their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter Matilda, who was born by the banks of the River Avon.
He misses the sense of club and the friendships that Gaelic football gave him, but what he really craves from his playing days is a crunching collision at Rainey’s Hatrick Park home.
”When you first get introduced to full-contact rugby, it goes one of two ways. You can think this is not for me, or it becomes an absolute addiction.
“The physicality of it, the brutal nature of it, is what I miss. I miss the collisions. I crave it so much. I don’t miss running a try in, or a miss pass, or getting blown out of a ruck. I just miss the collision of it. That’s the hole that’s left unfilled.”
He’s filled it by taking into his hands the consequences of such collisions, which get bigger by the week in professional rugby.
Whether they manage to survive relegation this year, Bristol are looking at a bright new dawn with Connacht’s Pro12 winning head coach Pat Lam due to arrive in the summer.
And as good a Gaelic footballer as he was for the 14 years he played it, rugby is who Rory Murray has always been, and where he’s always wanted to be.