Dan Murphy Exclusive: ‘I am a massive believer and advocate of this league’

Dan Murphy's Hartpury currently sit seventh in the BUCS Super Rugby table

It is raining in Gloucester as the Women’s National League fixture gets underway between Hartpury and Cardiff Met.

Dan Murphy’s team sit in the stand at Kingsholm Stadium as their female counterparts get the double-header beneath the floodlights underway, their opposition sat just a few rows back.

Murphy has just about managed to get 10 minutes spare to talk to TRU, the first whistle his signal that until his team need to warmup that he can take a breather. At Hartpury’s campus, university rugby has been the order of the day with the second, third, fourth and sixth teams all taking on their Cardiff Met counterparts.

Some that have taken part in those games are filtering through the turnstiles, and as the night went on would certainly find their voices.

As a player the 37-year-old called the West Country home, first for Gloucester in a five year spell and for Hartpury where he began coaching upon his arrival to the team in 2017.

Now retired and the head coach of Hartpury’s BUCS Super Rugby side, Murphy is a key part of the Hartpury pathway. It is a well-trodden one, with numerous players having come to the small hamlet in Gloucestershire and honed their skills from the age of 16 at the College before gaining higher honours both academically and at Test match level.

In this time, Hartpury have excelled too. Hartpury University RFC have played in the Championship since 2017, while since BUCS Super Rugby’s introduction in 2016, the side has won the league once and the Championship three times in consecutive years.

Last season was an off year for Hartpury, largely because the team didn’t win the competition. Much of that campaign in Murphy’s eyes came as a result of the hangover caused by Covid-19, the team not spending the same amount of time together in years gone by and after that challenging period, the side seem to be on the right track again.

“We lost in the quarter-final, we only won six games last year; it was a real, tough season,” Murphy told TRU. “That’s all behind us now and we have got a very strong group with us that are driving standards from within and want to be the Hartpury of old.

“There is a lot of tradition and reputation around being at Hartpury and the job is only half done when you put on the shirt to play on a Wednesday. You have got to live up to the expectation and the reputation of that shirt.

“It is only half done getting the shirt on. You have still got to do it [perform well] while you are in the shirt and these guys are driving that.”

That success is apparent upon a quick inspection of the team sheet from the weekend. Joe Howard captained the side, the back-row just months removed from having finished his studies with the team, while Oscar Lennon and Aristot Benz-Salomon are dual-registered with the team from Bristol Bears, their efforts last season catching the eye of Pat Lam.

A glance elsewhere and you see that Jonny Hill and Ellis Genge were in action for England on Sunday, while Stephen Varney was starting for Italy in the nation’s win over Samoa and Lois Rees-Zammit started for Wales against the All Blacks in Cardiff.

Even in Murphy’s squad to take on Cardiff Met success stories can already be found. Case and point is scrum-half Owen Rendell, who this time a year ago was lining up in Hartpury’s Sixth XV before working his way up to the Firsts ahead of the quarter-finals and retaining his place this year.

“Like I say, it’s a five year process,” Murphy said. “It’s a pathway that goes from 16 to 21 or 22 and with our master’s courses at the moment, 23 or 24. I know what I’d rather be doing than holding a bag in an Academy or studying and playing very good rugby week in week out.”

It is a pathway that Murphy himself followed. Upon release from Northampton Saints as a teenager, the former prop made his way to St Mary’s University who at the time were in the top tier of university rugby.

Spending two years playing on Wednesday nights, Murphy developed physically and at the end of it all was offered a contract by London Irish, kick-starting an 11-year career in the Premiership with the Exiles, Gloucester and Harlequins.

“I am a massive believer and advocate of this league,” he said. “I am literally living proof that it happens. I played 15 years of professional rugby after going to university, so I am a massive believer in this system, and it is not just me that has done it.

“Alex Dombrandt, [Luke] Northmore, Toby Venner, Toby Venner, Stephen Varvey, Oscar Lennon, Jon and Toti Benz-Salomon, these guys, they have come through it and it is from university rugby.

“Rugby is a lovely sport because it is a sport for all, but people develop in shape and mature physically and mentally at different times in life. 

“An 18-year-old or a 16-year-old academy lad might be a completely different person at 21 and developed or changed psychologically, but university rugby gives them that chance to explore that.”

For Murphy’s side this week there is no game as the competition takes a rest week. A week on Wednesday will see his team make the long trip to West Yorkshire in order to take on Leeds Beckett University, who shocked many with their 17-all draw with Cardiff University.

Prior to playing Cardiff Met last week, the team were fifth and after the 25-26 loss dropped to seventh. Still with plenty of games to play, Hartpury are far from being out of the running and at the weekend were able to celebrate Cameron Holenstein earning his first cap for Switzerland, as well as Will Goffey and George Perry’s involvement with the Championship team that lost 10-64 to Ealing Trailfinders.

“It’s a hotbed of rugby around here,” Murphy told TRU. “Not just Gloucestershire, you have got Bristol down the road, Worcester and Bath is not too far away.

“The amount of talent, players in this pool and then you throw the university and BUCS Super Rugby into that, we get players coming in from outside that pool. Which is amazing.

“We have our U18s programme that runs and is very successful, our university programme in BUCS Super Rugby and on top of that – we are just the middle piece – we have got that Championship side.

“Especially with what is going on in the world at the moment, with Premiership clubs and Academies and finances and all sorts, at Hartpury we almost offer a five-year Academy contract.

“It is a five year academy, two years of U18s, three years at university and you come out of it with A-Levels and a degree. Then you still get the chance to play Championship rugby. 

“It is a great pathway, a proven pathway and we benefitted from it yearly by getting players into the area. It’s great.”