THE capture of fly-half Ian Humphreys signals London Irish’s intent to play fast, attacking rugby.
With international Tomás O’Leary at nine, Humphreys is the other member of a possible all-Irish half-back combination for the club.
Like the Corkman, Humphreys arrives in London with something to prove. Where O’Leary had to make way for Conor Murray at club and international level, Paddy Jackson was preferred to Humphreys as Ulster closed in on a Heineken Cup final appearance last season.
The Irish Post met up with Humphreys at Sunbury to chat about Ulster, Ireland, a new life in Exile … and Fifa soccer.
When did you decide to move to London Irish?
Probably around the time of the Heineken Cup semi-final in April, so it was quite late on. I’d spoken to Brian [Smith] a good bit earlier in the season. He was wondering if I was interested, at that time I said no. I was playing every week and I was enjoying it and we were going well. I didn’t play in the semi-final and then we touched base again. I said, “I’ll look into it”. So I had a chat with my wife Jenny and my agent and family and everybody whose opinions I listen to and respect. They all sort of thought, at my age, with the way Paddy Jackson is coming through and the new coach at Ulster, maybe, yeah, come across here, it’s time to try something new.
Was it frustrating not playing towards the end of last season?
Ah yeah, massively, I think that’s probably an understatement. There were a couple of tough weeks I must say where I really struggled, I was so disappointed. And I suppose that’s what pushed me into the decision to move because when I was there I’d never thought about playing for another club. I thought I’d retire at Ulster, but then what happened happened and I made a decision to leave.
That can’t have been an easy decision …
No, Jeez, not at all, especially with the family there. We’d settled into a house back where we were from, in Broughshane, outside Ballymena. But I just thought with how it had been I couldn’t risk …
When Irish came, I knew I was still able to get to a good club. Definitely it was a very tough decision. Made more so by the two kids. If it was just Jenny and I we’d be away like a shot. At the end of the day, we thought this is the best move for all of us.
As a sportsman and a competitor, it must be tough not starting games.
Even when I was at Ulster before when Niall O’Connor was there, we were swapping and out a fair bit and it was disappointing at times but I could cope with it. I sort of struggled towards the end of last year because I just didn’t see it coming. Obviously there had been a few times when Ruan Pienaar was playing 10 and that was fair enough, but then I just sort of … I was surprised by the decision [to drop me from the first team]. But to be fair to the coaches, they won the [Heineken Cup] semi-final, the final didn’t go quite as planned. Obviously the coaches made the decision and stuck with it.
Do you think it could have made a difference if you started the final?
Who knows? No crystal ball you know.
You must have thought about it.
Ach, I suppose you do at times … ah, look, I don’t waste time thinking about that, I’ve moved on. At that stage I knew I was coming here so it was just a case of getting ready for the move.
Not starting was a big motivation for moving, so do you expect to be the first-choice starter here?
No, not necessarily. There’s Shane [Geraghty] and Stevie Shingler here. I think in the Premiership with so many games and so many other competitions you’re going to get chances, and all you can ask for is a chance. At the end of the day, I didn’t play well enough to be picked for the semi-final so you can’t expect to get picked if you’re not playing well, and that’s the same here. As long as I get an opportunity to show what I can do then I’ll have no complaints.
What’s your form like now?
I feel like I’m really buzzing again … the new challenge, just getting out here trying to prove yourself to all the new players. The conditions here are really enjoyable to play in. You go somewhere new you get a new buzz, pre-season always brings that out in you. Firm pitches, dry ball … ah, I’m really looking forward to it.
Will this be your last contract?
Yeah, I think so. It’ll definitely be my last club. Whether they offer me a year or two at the end we’ll see … three years is long time. If you asked me a year ago would you be going anywhere else, I’d be saying ‘No chance’. The plan is three years here and move on, back home probably, and get a real job.
When you’re closer to end of your playing days than the start, does that invest more urgency on your career?
Em, yes and no. there’s a certain element of, I now know I’m never going to play for Ireland. Always when I was at home there was that outside hope, even when things weren’t going well and I was getting overlooked. But now I know it’s not an issue so I can just enjoy playing here.
Had the prospect of getting into the Ireland squad become an albatross then?
No I don’t think so.
… Because you were always tipped to break through at some stage …
It was always mentioned. Then Ronan [O’Gara] was there for so long. David [Humphreys, Ian’s brother] was there a while and then Paddy Wallace was there. I never played well enough consistently to break into that scene so I have no complaints there at all. I’m just looking forward to playing here, enjoying it and not worrying about anything else apart from playing for London Irish.
So you’ve completely written off any chance of playing for Ireland?
Totally. It’s never going to happen. A few years ago when I was overlooked for the Churchill Cup when the last Lions tour was on, I pretty much knew nothing was going to happen. Although I always hoped, I knew in the back of my mind it wasn’t going to be an issue. But now that I’m here I know it’s definitely not going to happen. I’m just happy to be here and am concentrating on enjoying my life over here.
Just looking through the backs division of the team you’ve joined, they would compare favourably to Premiership champions Harlequins …
Yeah, that was one of the huge draws towards Irish, the backs they have. Any time I watched them I saw them scoring great tries and throwing the ball about. If we get decent ball from the forwards we can rip teams apart. There’s plenty of pace out there, even people like Marland [Yarde] coming through, and Tommy Homer and JJ [Jonathan Joseph]. It’s a really exciting to come in. But you can have all the talent in the world but it depends on how we go out on the pitch. The potential is definitely there for us to do well, it’s just a matter of making sure we do it.
Like you say, you’re going to need good ball from the forwards …
Yeah, that’s the same in any team. If your forwards do well the team does well. The old saying ‘Forwards win games and backs decide by how much’ is true. You rarely win a game without your forwards doing well.
Although Bob Casey has just retired he didn’t get to play much last season with his injuries, but it was striking that whenever he came, he brought a lot of leadership to the pack. Can he be replaced?
He was something special, a bit of a legend around the place. It’s up to somebody else to step up and take over that mantle. Dec [Danaher] is the captain, he’s been here a long time and knows what makes the place tick. It’s important for people like Tomás [O’Leary] and myself to buy into what the club does well and not come in and say this is how things have to be done, because every club is different.
What do you think that ethos of London Irish is?
The boys train really hard. They enjoy themselves as well. You walk around, there’s a smile on everybody’s face, it’s nice and relaxed but you see fellas like Shaun Edwards walking around, he’s there for training, to do business. At the end of the day, it’s a business. I have a laugh as much as anyone but whenever the whistle goes you’ve got to switch on.
What are you like the day of a game or the night before a game?
I’d be really chilled out, really relaxed. My game’s not really based on physicality so I just make sure I know what plays I’m going into the game with — when you play against different teams you have different attacks. I’ll enjoy time with the family, just chill out, watch a bit of TV, nothing very strenuous. It’ll be strange getting back to afternoon kick-offs because Ulster were always playing in the evening. I’d go for breakfast with the family and then go for a sleep and that was the day done. In Leicester I really enjoyed the afternoon kick-offs. There were no kids about then, the routine will be slightly different, but it’ll be easily adjusted.
Do you get nervous at all?
When I was younger, a bit, but not now. I always thought that if I prepare well there’s no reason to be nervous. If I’ve done enough kicking, if I know what plays I’m using, then there’s no issue.
So you get calmer as you get older?
That’s what family brings. You can think it’s the end of the world if you’re not picked or you’re not winning. But you think about it and realise there is a lot worse things that could happen to you. You see what happens outside rugby with people’s illness and things and you realise there’s a lot more important things than rugby, as important as it is. It definitely adds perspective, but I still think I’m a pretty bad loser, I hate losing.
How long would you be in a bad mood for after a bad performance?
After Friday nights, I’d be pretty grumpy until Sunday. At the end of the day my wife would tell me to wise up and take the kids out. You can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself when there are other people to look after. The main thing is by the time Monday comes around you’ve forgotten about it and you’re ready to move on. Obviously you review what went right and what went wrong but you can’t linger on it.
How much preparation goes into a game?
Certain positions have more to do. Nine and tens have lots of plays to call. Second rows of the lineouts have calls. Scrums have to examine the other scrum.
How many moves would a fly-half have to know for a game?
Loads. It’s not as bad as American football or anything. Some patterns go up to four, five phases. But if somebody finds themselves in the wrong place you’ve got to adjust. Or if someone gets smashed behind the gain line … you’ve got all these things to think about.
Preparation is key. When it comes to a game it all comes out, you know what you have to do without even thinking about it.
Do the best prepared teams win the most games?
I think so. One of the classic examples of that was two World Cups ago with Argentina. They probably were not the most able team but had Hernandez kicking well and they were very well organised. Organisation can cover up a lot of inadequacies. At the same time you still need game-breakers. If a plan falls down, it’s up to the nine and ten to reorganise. Myself and Tomás have plenty of experience there.
So it’s important that the half backs have a good understanding and good relationship …
Yeah, I’ve always had a good relationships with all the nines I’ve played with, especially with Pienaar the last couple years.
What was it like to play with him? What were his strengths?
He was class. His organisation of the forwards was very good, his kicking game was very good. He was very good at taking the pressure off. Loads of times I’d want the ball but he’d just take over and play the corners very well. He had a good break on him as well … Good distributer. To be fair he probably had everything. He had it at nine, ten, 15. He could do anything he wanted. He was a pretty special player. But I’m looking forward to playing with Tomás.
What will he bring to the team?
From playing with Munster his organisation of the forwards is good. Defensively he’s very strong as well. He brings a real good tempo to the game. He gets to rucks and gets the ball away. I like to play a fast game so it’s exciting watching him in training bossing the game.
He’d be one of the physically strongest scum-halves around too, yeah?
He seems to be. He keeps telling everyone he’s pretty strong, with big guns and all that kind of stuff. He likes to chat about himself. Ah no, he’ll suit the Premiership very well.
You seem to get on pretty well, that’s important isn’t it?
I think so. It’s important you trust your nine, you have to get on with him too. At the end of the day, if he’s throwing you bad ball it’s important you can give out to him and know he’s not going to take it personally. If I’m quiet or not organising it he’ll be giving out to me as well. It’s a two-way street. We have to look after each other because one can make the other’s job a lot easier.
In terms of getting to know other players, what was it like living in an Academy house before the family arrived?
It was great fun. The only thing I couldn’t cope with was the dirt. Like, it was a disgusting house in terms of cleanliness. But it was really good fun.
Who were you staying with?
Conor Gaston, Shaun Malton, Luke Peters and Jack Ramshaw. I knew Conor from home. I’ve always been a bit of a Fifa geek so we played a lot of that and just chilled out.
Who was the best Fifa player in the house?
I was up there, myself and Conor were the two who would have won most of the games. With the kids I don’t get in as much gaming as I’d like so I was in my element.
Professional sportsmen stay younger for longer don’t they?
Of course they do. You’re socialising a lot with 18, 19, 20-year-olds. You don’t have the responsibilities of a real job, nine-to-five office hours. All the banter that goes with rugby is well-known to be immature. It definitely keeps you younger for longer and that’s a good thing.
Does all that stuff ever annoy the older players?
Most of them were young once as well. I definitely enjoy hanging out with the younger lads, having a bit of craic.
How did you break into professional rugby as a young player?
I played at school in Ballymena Academy. I played at local club sides in Ulster when I went to university. In 2005 I played in the Hong Kong sevens. I hadn’t had any Ulster contract so I thought, I’m not going to play professional rugby. I was 23, which is quite old to get a first professional contract. And I got it at Leicester. It went from there.
There was a lot of Irish players at Leicester at the time wasn’t there?
Yeah, Geordan [Murphy], Paul Burke, Johne Murphy, Frank Murphy, Shane Jennings, Leo Cullen, Gavin Hickey and myself … Leicester was a great place. I really enjoyed my rugby there, because it was so professional, such a culture of winning.
It was a real shock to the system. At 23 you’re sort of set in your ways a little bit with how you did your training and to be honest I wasn’t a very good trainer. I wouldn’t have trained very hard, I wouldn’t have done any extras. At Leicester you were expected to, if you didn’t you got left behind. That was a good wake-up for me.
You just saw how hard everybody trained there, it was frightening. It made me wake up and realise that I’d been wasting my time for the last number of years. Also it gave me a bit of regret, that from 19/20 I didn’t push myself.
At that age, I probably just thought, whatever happens happens. I wasn’t really die-hard into wanting to be a professional rugby player. I thought, if it happens, it’ll be cool. If it doesn’t I’ll go and do something else.
Were you studying when you were 19/20?
Yeah, Sports Science, but doing it because I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I was just enjoying the student life. I was lucky I played in those Sevens and got into Leicester because otherwise I don’t know what would have happened.
Being the brother of one of Ireland’s most-capped fly-halves, did you expect to make it as a professional?
Yeah that’s probably true, a part of me thought, ‘Ah it will probably just happen at some stage’ and that was probably my downfall at that age.
When I went to Leicester I realised quickly that you can’t just be lazy and pick and choose what sessions you do. I realised this is not as laid back as I thought it was going to be, which was great, it was what I needed.
Personally, what do you want to achieve this season?
I just want to be starting week in week out in all the big games — and just enjoy my rugby again. Enjoyment is the biggest thing for me. I’ve never played rugby for the money. That’s never been an issue, I’ve always just done it because I’ve enjoyed it. That’s the key for me and that was one of the big reasons for coming here.