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Soldier Murphy keeping his claws sharp for return with Cats

Kilkenny defender doing best to keep fit while on tour

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TOUR OF DUTY: Lieutenant Paul Murphy of Óglaigh nah Éireann serving with the UN in Lebanon.

TOUR OF DUTY: Lieutenant Paul Murphy of Óglaigh nah Éireann serving with the UN in Lebanon.

TOUR OF DUTY: Lieutenant Paul Murphy of Óglaigh nah Éireann serving with the UN in Lebanon.

Even such a long and internecine dispute as that which has its roots on either side of the imaginary Blue Line that provides demarcation between Lebanon and Israel has had to pause briefly to allow a stock-take on the impact of coronavirus.

In March, Paul Murphy, better known as one of Kilkenny and hurling's most celebrated sentries, noticed "business" a little quieter than usual in the hills through which the line they seek to maintain peace along makes its way. A front line of a different kind.

"Generally, the whole area quietened down because there was a level of uncertainty and people were obviously staying inside. But we continue to see activity around the Blue Line on both sides," observes Murphy, in his capacity as a lieutenant with the 115th Irish Infantry Battalion, part of a peacekeeping operation with UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon).

Patrols

"Operationally, we are still working with the Lebanese Armed Forces. We have our restrictions in place, social distancing, but from the point of view of patrols still going out the gate patrolling the Blue Line, we're still very active and nothing has been affected in that respect."

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TOP CAT: Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy celebrates

TOP CAT: Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy celebrates

SPORTSFILE

TOP CAT: Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy celebrates

Murphy and his colleagues are a few weeks past their appointed return date at this stage.

When the virus spread, especially in Europe, the United Nations imposed travel restrictions on all their representatives until June 30.

The majority of the '115th' were due home in the middle of May but that won't happen now until the end of this month, June 21 and June 29 being the new scheduled dates after the Irish successfully made an exemption.

"After June 30 countries could start rotating but you had approximately 6,000 troops to rotate here from many different countries. So it wasn't going to be June 30 when you were home, it could have been closer to August. They were never going to go, 'Everybody change over now', because it would have been too much of an upheaval, really.

"We kept an eye on Ireland. The one thing that would affect us we knew straight away when travel restrictions were in, was if, God forbid, anything was to happen at home we weren't going to be able to get home.

"Thankfully, everyone has been fit and healthy back home from a coronavirus point of view but we are not going to be able to travel home if there are any family or personal issues."

Ordinarily, such timing would surely have spiked Murphy's involvement in Kilkenny's championship season.

He wasn't due home until around May 19 as it was, more than a month later than his 2018 return. By then Kilkenny would have had Dublin and Laois behind them in Leinster's round robin.

An end of June return would have left the Leinster Championship behind and, if still alive, an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final in their sights. Too much catch up on a ship with the wind already in its sails.

Now? There's a blank sheet of paper in front of him. Murphy laughed at the idea of his colleagues having to get creative with their physical fitness and hurling finessing in such confinement.

'Welcome to our world,' Murphy, joined by Kilkenny colleague Richie Reid on the current tour, thought to himself.

"When we got out here we realised we are restricted in many ways in how we can train, trying to recreate as best we can being on a pitch. I had a laugh when the coronavirus kicked in, once people were back in their homes they were put in our situation, they had to get creative, you had to get your runs in or do your bit of physical fitness training or your pucks. The rest of the lads would understand what we are trying to do out here. It's a level playing field people are trying to do the best they can to keep in shape.

"Physical fitness is important out here and the Defence Forces always puts emphasis on it. Luckily out here the gym is sufficient, it's not glamorous but at the same time we have built up over the years quite a good gym, you make the most of the runs. Kilkenny (S and C coaches) send us runs that are specific to running on a pitch which we can't do out here so we try to adapt."

Far away hills, where he is now, certainly aren't greener.

"From a hurling point of view, we meet up a few times during the week and again, like everyone in lockdown, you try to get creative in terms of what will be a challenging puck-around session.

Understandable

"Some days work comes in and you just can't train which is understandable but certainly it's a great environment to find a bit of structure to your training."

Few can relish the waiting game as much as Murphy. The urgency for the certainty that so many of his peers crave as inactivity prolongs is not there with him.

"I was reading an article about a female athlete from Limerick, Sara Lavin, who had picked up an injury. The Olympics were due and she was saying she was happy in many ways from a selfish point of view that things had been pushed back because now she had time to get ready.

"Realistically at inter-county level, you don't just turn up; nobody walks back into any set-up, any team which is understandable. The nature of the way the world is at the moment, people have to change their plans, everything has been put off, it helped in many ways.

"I just focused on my job out here, I knew there was going to be no hurling. The whole championship has been kicked back and you're not actually going to miss anything, that might sound a bit selfish but that's the reality.

"As we see more time-lines coming into it we may have something in October or the clubs will come back. I knew I was in no rush home anyway, there are bigger priorities at the moment in terms of people's safety."

On this tour, his third, having been to Chad (2009-'10) and Lebanon (2017-'18) Lieutenant Murphy has taken on added responsibility.

"I'm an operations officer and double as the press officer. So the patrols I would have been on before along the Blue Line, I am now observing them from a distance and monitoring what the patrols are reporting back, where we are sending patrols and what is really the lie of the land.

"It's a different aspect, it's a different size to be running a mission from."

Media work has him dealing with the military press office back home as a point of contact for enquiries that might have to be made. For the UN, which has Polish, Maltese and Hungarian forces on the ground on the same mission, he provides a similar role.

Tours are considered the pinnacle of an Irish soldier's career and for those who double as inter-county players in hurling and football that can be a delicate balancing act.

All Murphy's tours have traversed winter and spring months and have been sufficiently spread out.

"Tours are where you learn the most about soldiering, it's where you make the biggest connections in your career.

"If you are overseas with someone for six months you get to know that person very well. It's like a small village the way we operate, you cultivate these memories with colleagues that you meet 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line.

"I applied for this trip knowing that I was going to be coming late into a Kilkenny set-up. I made the decision at that time that I had to do it from a personal point of view but also from a career point of view."

Understanding the lie of the land, what they're dealing with, is critical to every member of a tour. Murphy equates the size of Lebanon to the province of Munster but from where he is in the southern part of the country, around the town of Tebnine, the capital Beiruit, Damascus in Syria and Jerusalem are all within two hours' reach. A geopolitical powderkeg.

"There are completely different cultures. You learn a lot and you understand how the different cultures work in this area, just by reading up on it and being aware of it. It's very important to do that if you want to do a good job out here."

Dilligent

Murphy has been an equally diligent and quick learner on the hurling field. Graduating in 2011 he established himself as the foremost corner-back in the game through the last decade, playing 49 championship games.

Only Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, TJ Reid, Eoin Larkin and Tommy Walsh have a greater body of work behind them for Brian Cody.

He'll return just as the GAA fields are re-opening and by October, the earliest scheduled start for an inter-county championship, it could be as if he was never away.

The prospect of providing a steady hand in a squad that continues to grow young excites him.

"There are exceptional lads coming through. We would have said it, Adrian Mullen, John Donnelly, Huw Lawlor have all come along, Paddy Deegan.

"And people start to realise what you are talking about then. Those lads were probably our best players last year."

The delay has provided few sporting advantages. Paul Murphy looks forward to exploiting his.