Former Munster player Denis Hurley talks Anthony Foley, retirement and the curse of being Mr Versatile

Matt Jones - Editor 20:35 05/07/2017
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Denis Hurley will be part of the coaching staff at Dubai Exiles next season

When professional sport has been your daily routine for so long, the day it finally comes to end can be cold and lonely.

When Gary Neville realised his Manchester United career was over it came in the dressing room toilets at half time after a harrowing first 45 minutes at the Hawthorns on New Year’s Day, 2011, in which he admits he’d made West Bromwich Albion winger Jerome Thomas look like Cristiano Ronaldo.

“I saw Rafael warming up, and soon the board was out – a big No 2, up in lights. Off I went for the last time. I knew it was over. Gary Neville, the former Manchester United defender,” Neville, now a Sky Sports pundit, recalls.

Denis Hurley can sympathise. Like Neville, he spent his entire rugby-playing career at one club – Irish giants Munster.

He’d envisioned playing until he was 34, but after a series of injuries blighted what turned out to be the final six months of his 12-and-a-half years at Thomond Park, he was told last May his contract wasn’t being renewed, and it was over, aged 31.

Also like Neville, the day it ended left Hurley feeling a mix of sadness and relief. He’d never envisioned leaving the club, but he also knows it needed to happen.

“I’d love to have played for two more years. I’d set goals for myself to play until 34 but once things started slowing down and becoming a bit more repetitive, and with a young family too, you can’t really hold out for things that aren’t there,” admits Hurley, now 32.

“It was time to cut ties and try and come out with something a bit more tangible. In some ways it was a lot easier with the injuries. Because for the last six months I wasn’t training with the squad. It becomes a very lonely place.
“All you want to be doing is out playing with the guys but when you’re at a point when you’re training with the strength and conditioning guys, working with the physios, that’s your focus. You’re in your own bubble so it can be tough mentally.

“During that period I was told my contract wasn’t going to be renewed because of injuries. That takes a hit. As much as you love the guys you have been around with for such a long time there’s a different mentality.

“I was trying to get out there and they were making finals. I was in no shape to help so it’s the sad side of rugby. It was a gentle goodbye and not too much fanfare about it, you just move along. Every year guys come and go. It’s quite transient in some ways, like Dubai.”

Hurley played 166 times in total for Munster, scoring 16 tries as a versatile player across the back line, adept at wing, full-back and centre.

Hurley moved to Dubai earlier this year to start a new chapter in his life with his wife and young daughter. He was named Dubai Exiles defence coach last month and will assist director of rugby Jacques Benade in trying to get Exiles back on track after a poor 2016/17 campaign.

Now that ties with Munster have finally been severed, Hurley is able to reflect on his time there with warmth, as well as look forward to next season with Exiles, surrounded by the warmth of the UAE weather.

Hurley added: “It’s the competitive nature. I don’t think you get to be a professional without being competitive. I still look at games now and think ‘I could do that’ or compare myself to current players.

“But then I remember the last few seasons and struggling with injuries and being managed game-wise and not being able to give 100 per cent always. Injuries hampered me and when I remember those parts, those are the parts I’m happy to be away from.

“It was constantly weighing on my mind and the knock-on effect on the family, mood-wise in the house. So I’m quite happy to hang up the boots and get on with the next part of my life. I spent so long with the professional game that it’s nice to do something different now.

“I had been with one club for over 12 years and you become a little institutionalised, so it’s nice to experience new cultures and different environments.”

The twilight of his time with the Red Army aside, Hurley’s memories of playing in the blood red jersey of his boyhood club are fond and flowing.

He was part of the 2008 Heineken Cup-winning side in his breakout season – not a bad way to start out, he admits.

“I’ve had a number of highlights. That kind of sprung out because that season was my breakout year in the first team for Munster,” recalls Hurley of the 16-13 triumph against French juggernauts Toulouse at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

“When it happened it was like ‘this is not too bad, easy enough’. As the years have gone by we’ve come close a few times, not made a final but a few semi-finals. You look back and there’s a lot of big occasions and ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. So it is a time that stands out.

“The quarter-final was my Heineken Cup and European debut and that was a real special moment. Dad travelled over last minute. It was a Saturday game and team was announced on Tuesday so only then would I have got the chance to tell people.

“It was against Gloucester at Kingsholm. I had a decent performance and after the game it was nice to prove I can play here and carry on. That was a great point for me.”

The mid-2000s were a boom time for Munster and Irish club rugby. Munster’s 2008 victory was a second title in three seasons, following their 2006 crown, while Leinster would win three times in the next four seasons.

Despite his emergence in the 2007/08 season, Hurley would only go on to win a solitary Ireland cap, against the USA in 2009. He was named in the 2011 Six Nations Championship squad but did not play a single minute.

A mix of top quality players around him and the curse of his versatility probably hampered his chances of further international stardom.

It wasn’t until his later years that he settled down at inside centre, his preferred position. But whereas mentor and former Munster player and coach Anthony Foley believed in Hurley, New Zealander Rob Penney didn’t think he was good enough to play 12.

“I’ve had people over the years tell me I’m playing in the wrong position,” adds Hurley.

“I was one of those players who was too quick to be in the forwards, too big to be in certain back positions. It was playing at 12 towards the end of my career that I started feeling comfortable. I got to use some of the skills I was better at, like offloading.

“Over the years you learn different coaches have different opinions on what you can offer. I had one coach a few years ago and I approached him to play centre.

“He told me ‘listen, I don’t think you’re good enough to play there’ and two years later I approached the new coach (Anthony Foley) and he said ‘yeah, I don’t see why not’. I got a new contract based on being a centre, so every coach has a different opinion.”

Hurley visibly shifts in his seat and there’s an audible break in his voice when he mentions Foley’s name.

Foley was Munster head coach when he died suddenly in his sleep last October in a French hotel room, aged just 42. He played over 200 games for the club – in addition to winning 62 Ireland caps – and his death came on the eve of their 2016/17 European Champions Cup opener against Racing 92.

His talent and personality was something that many players, including Hurley, had tried to emulate.

“My whole career he was involved with,” said Hurley.

“He was the Munster captain when I first got into the academy. I played with him for his last cap. He transitioned straight into the coaching team when he finished playing.

“With rugby, when you’re playing with him, he was the type of guy you wanted to emulate because he had such a skill-set, but he really wanted to win. As part of being captain he was trying to bring everyone along with him.

“On the coaching side he had his own firm opinions of how he wanted the game to be played so at times you would butt heads with him about how we were doing things. At times it was Anthony’s way or no way.

“I’ve had a lot of interaction with him over the years. It was a sad loss. It’s hard to see someone leave at such an early age that’s been part of your life.”

Hurley believes much of Munster’s success and their fierce, scrappy, underdog persona, was shaped by Foley.

“It was the buy-in and belief and the work ethic,” he added.

“The biggest thing about Munster over the years has been no matter who you come up against, no matter what superstars, the work rate as a squad made more out of the opportunities.

“Yes they relied on a number of players and Anthony was one of those guys that teams were built around. But they were built around the amount of work that was necessary to try and beat teams of superstars.

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