On 22 October 2016 one of the most memorable, emotional and passionate moments took place in Irish sport which will be remembered for years to come. On that poignant Saturday, Munster claimed a superb 38-17 victory over the Glasgow Warriors, playing with 14 men for the majority of the game, just six days after the passing of head coach, Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley.
On that day, I was running late as usual and I arrived at Thomond Park much later than originally desired, about 30 minutes before kick off. The commemorative Anthony Foley matchday programmes had already sold out so I took up my regular position on the east terrace to soak in the atmosphere.
Now, the news of Foley’s passing the weekend beforehand hadn’t really sunk in for me during the week, I’m not sure why, but perhaps due to the unprecedented nature of it all, it didn’t really feel real. But when I eventually found my usual spot on the terrace, between the 22 and the five-metre line, I was immediately struck by the vast numbers of people who had already taken up their positions.
All of a sudden, this didn’t feel like I was attending a rugby match, it was something which could be described as a celebration – a celebration of the life of Foley – the father, the husband, the friend, the player and the coach. Munster supporters from all clubs throughout the province stood together to sing the Shannon RFC anthem, ‘There Is An Isle’. Then, in between the usual pre-match routines – interviews, warm-ups, stadium announcements – quiet, but powerful renditions of the ‘Fields Of Athenry’ reverberated throughout the hallowed ground and it was at this moment where many of the men and women surrounding me started getting emotional.
Even now, I find it difficult to explain this moment but it was probably due to this strange, unexpected combination of a feeling of immense pride and sorrow. The pride was a result of seeing the unbelievable turnout in Thomond Park that day – young and old together to pay their respects to Foley and his family but also to support the team in what was an incredibly difficult moment for the squad and everyone associated with it. The sorrow, of course, was due to the sudden and tragic passing of one of Munster Rugby’s most beloved sons – someone who I and many in Munster grew up admiring and who contributed to some incredible memories with Shannon, Munster and Ireland.
Eight months on and looking back – I don’t think Munster were ever going to be beaten that day – the players, the management and the support would never have allowed that to happen. The week that preceded that game was always going to contribute to a phenomenal performance based on grit, determination and passion – the virtues of Munster Rugby.
However, what also makes the 2016/2017 season so special for Munster was how they continued to perform to such an incredibly high standard for the weeks and months which proceeded that Saturday in October. A lot of this has to go down to Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones. There is no template or instruction guide when it comes to dealing with what these four men had to endure and manage throughout last season. But Erasmus utilised the raw emotion of this tragedy and channelled it into a simple, effective game plan.
What was so impressive about Erasmus’ management style was his ability to instil a mentality within the Munster squad of not being fearful of failure. Within the structured framework of the game plan, there was scope to play what was in front of you. If an offload is on, you go for it. If there was space in behind the defensive line, chip the ball into that space. If you had an overlap, go for the skip pass. The mantra was that, if a player failed to execute in such a situation, there was no post-match lambasting. If the same scenario arose again – then you learn from your initial mistake and make it happen this time.
The management implemented an incredibly effective high-pressure strategy, one which was based on an often impenetrable defensive system and one which was easy to administer to the players. This system brought Munster to a Champions Cup semi-final and a PRO12 final. Ultimately, the system had it’s limitations, both offensively and defensively as seen by Saracens and Scarlets’ dismantling of the southern province in those respective fixtures.
However, one only needed to look at the supporters who remained at the Aviva Stadium on both occasions to see the re-emergence of the connection between themselves and the players. It was a thank you. Thank you for bringing pride and passion back to the jersey. Thank you for the journey and thank you for allowing us to dream again.
And this is why every Munster supporter has the right to feel hurt by the departure of the South African duo.
Erasmus and Nienaber were integral to one of the most memorable seasons in Munster’s history. There was massive scope for further growth for what fans would have hoped would have been another two years at the helm. Now, the realities of modern professional sport mean that loyalty and sentiment are rare commodities, however, Munster’s season transcends something completely different. The harsh realities of IRFU contract clauses, the aggressive pursuit from the South African Rugby Union (SARU) and the understandable desire of a proud South African to be Director of Rugby of his country feel like they don’t belong in what has been a highly emotional time for everyone associated with Munster.
Nevertheless, here we are. I don’t doubt that the decision from Erasmus and Nienaber was a difficult one – they know themselves the hurt that their departure has and will continue to cause for the foreseeable future.
The best parting gift that they can provide is to ensure that last season’s progress isn’t hampered by the situation which is currently unfolding in the southern province. They will somehow, need to regain the trust of the players. They will be hurting, too, especially after Erasmus told the squad that he wouldn’t be leaving.
For Munster, a season of uncertainty, doubt and perhaps, a lingering sense of friction beckons but this is no ordinary club and this is no ordinary group of players. The squad and supporters showed what they are capable of last season in tremendous adversity and trying circumstances.
It’s a different kind of hurt, a different kind of pain but no one is bigger than Munster and that mentality needs to rise to the top if Munster are to continue their progress.
[gravityform id=”1″ title=”true” description=”true”]