Munster Rugby is more than just the sum of individuals under one banner. It is a brand steeped in history, in achievements above and beyond what was thought possible, in it’s ability to dig deep to find a way to win when all was but lost.
For all the province’s achievements over the years, Heineken Cups, Celtic Leagues, Pro 12’s, All Blacks’ scalps, 2016 could not prepare them for the tragedy of losing their friend, colleague and coach, Anthony Foley.
The Munster legend passed away unexpectedly in October while on duty with Munster in Paris and the shock of his passing brought the rugby world together to honour their fallen brother.
From Ireland forming a commemorative figure ‘8’ to face the mighty New Zealand haka in Chicago last month, to the tribute paid to Foley and his family by the visiting Maori All Blacks in Thomond Park a week later, the man from Killaloe has been honoured across rugby’s global community.
Munster, in their grief, have been paying homage to their friend and coach in the only way they know how – winning – and doing so in true vintage Munster fashion.
The red province has suffered a decline in fortunes over the last number of seasons. From the lofty heights of champions of Europe in the latter half of the last decade, to the unfamiliar lows that saw Munster regarded as the ‘fourth’ province last season.
Things have not been easy. The retirement of world class names like Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara and injuries to stars like Peter O’Mahony saw Munster’s aura evaporate to the point where they were no longer the feared unit of old.
As French and English clubs reaped the benefits of new European rugby financial deals, Munster had to make do with relying on emerging players from their academy and the signing of, then, relative unknowns such as a certain CJ Stander.
Succeeding Rob Penny as head coach of the club he captained to Heineken Cup glory in 2006, Foley faced an exceptionally tough task, one that required him to lead the club out of the shadow of those heroes who achieved so much glory in previous seasons.
While the road to success had numerous twists, turns and bumps, this year Munster were showing the signs that the sleeping giant was about to re-awaken from it’s slumber. Form was returning, talent was emerging, internationals were leading.
2016 had been a season of steady progression for the province but it wasn’t until the tragic and untimely passing of Foley that saw the men in red finally let go of the legacy that has come before.
In a bid to honour their colleague and coach, Munster have become a galvanised unit, one that not only has all the traits of the greatest of Munster sides, but now, in this latest iteration of the squad, blistering attacking, ball carrying and line breaking have become as normal as the famous Munster maul.
It’s as if in Foley’s name, the Munster that he helped shape and build is now hell bent on delivering on the promise and creating their own legacy.
With only one defeat under Foley this season before his passing and unbeaten since, Munster are 13-1 so far this term. Passion and pride has returned in the eyes of each Munster player as they line out. The famous 16th man has swelled once more to fill the capacity of Munster’s Limerick home in Thomond Park.
Grief within the squad has turned into purpose and their self-belief in their ability to find a way to win now sees the province sitting at the top of the Guinness Pro 12 table, a place they have not occupied with such confidence in years.
With a solitary defeat this season to provincial rivals Leinster, Munster have regrouped and dusted off the winning mentality that saw them rise to the top of the European rugby landscape. While calmly going about the job at hand, in honour of their friend, Munster are gathering momentum.
Foley’s passing has been the catalyst for bringing together all the elements that have been individually working for Munster. Now, everything has begun clicking into place and it shows on the field. While this would have likely happened anyway, the loss of their coach has triggered in the squad, an insatiable desire to succeed, to put right the wrongs of past under-performances.
The resumption of the Champions Cup this weekend sees the visit of English Premiership side Leicester Tigers to Thomond Park, a timely test of the Limerick based club’s progression this term.
The Tigers are current riding high in England’s domestic league and will be keen on getting one over on their long term European rivals. However, where last season the visitors might well have claimed a scalp, this term the ramparts are being resolutely restored to fortress Thomond, where Munster have not lost since February.
The loss of Anthony Foley was both professionally and personally devastating for many of the Munster squad. It however shows the true character of Irish rugby as they have taken their grief and pain and converted into a fire that was channeled to scorching effect during the November series of internationals.
Domestically, Munster have put the Pro 12 and Champions Cup on notice. They are the in-form side, they have purpose, they have drive. In memory of their colleague and coach, they have all the motivation they need to return to the top of sport.
If life were a fairy tale, Munster will be crowned Pro 12 and Champions Cup kings come the spring. However, win or lose, the manner in which Munster are now playing and the promise the squad is showing for the future, is a true testament to Foley and will be a lasting legacy to his memory.
Next up for Munster on the long climb to the summit is the Champions Cup visit of Leicester on Saturday 10th December at 3:15pm.
Fortress Thomond awaits.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena