What a difference two weeks can make. A fortnight ago Munster were reeling from a disappointing 25-14 defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium. Their forwards had been outplayed, their backs had misfired, and their Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus had endured his first defeat since taking charge of the province during the summer.
Munster looked sloppy and they were soundly beaten by their oldest rivals in Dublin and were forced to quickly regather themselves before travelling to Paris to take on Top 14 champions Racing Metro in Colombes.
Many Munster fans had felt that the Leinster defeat was only going to serve as a pre-cursor for what was going to be a difficult and testing afternoon in Paris against a side that was glittered with international talent… and then the unimaginable happened. Munster Head Coach Anthony Foley had passed away after he was found unresponsive in his hotel room on Sunday morning by a member of staff at the Novotel Hotel in Suresnes, a suburb west of Paris.
The rugby world was left in complete and utter shock, disbelief that one of Irish Rugby’s favourite sons had been taken in the middle of the night after suffering an acute pulmonary oedema onset by heart disease.
Friends, former teammates, fans, parents, siblings, children – left stunned by the passing of a 42-year-old man who had been taken without warning.
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Munster’s scheduled match with Racing was understandably canned, the players returned home, and Foley was buried in his native Killaloe less than a week after boarding a plane for Paris. How time flies.
But in a week where sport was very much a secondary factor, tributes and eulogies poured in to honour and pay respect to a man who embodied everything that Munster Rugby stood for.
The beauty with sport is it’s consistency. The show goes on. Players come and go, teams chop and change and you never know what will happen in any given game. There’s a certain unpredictability with every sport no matter how one sided a matchup may seem from afar, but in certain cases and particular scenarios, you can expect a response.
If the All Blacks are beaten, you can expect a ruthless and clinical response. If a Martin O’Neill-Roy Keane led Ireland team put in a spectacularly underwhelming performance, you can expect they’re going to get a rollicking for their play. But then there are the reactions that supersede sport and go beyond the realm of competition. Performances that transcend logic, form guides and all rationale.
These performances are usually born out of raw human emotion. When there are greater forces at work than skill execution and tactics. These games are often few and far between but you recognise them when they unfold right in front of you.
The New York Yankees 11-3 win over the Chicago White Sox in the first baseball game following the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001. Harry Arter’s man of the match performance against Manchester United just days after the death of his stillborn daughter. Ireland’s triumphant 2007 Six Nations victory over England at Croke Park. Munster’s 38-17 win over Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park.
These were games and sporting contests that produced performances that exceeded normal expectations.
This was Munster on Saturday in Limerick. An indomitable performance that was carved out of the playing style of their former friend – confrontational, unnerving and refusing to take a backwards step.
Watching Munster play over the last few seasons has been a tough ask. They’ve undergone radical change in both their playing squad and coaching staff, they’ve had to endure long term injuries to key players and they just haven’t been able to produce the type of performances that have been long associated with Munster teams of years goneby.
However, watching Munster on Saturday was a treat, a real treat. This was the type of performance that Munster fans had been longing for. An 80 minute display that was brimming with passion and intensity. A forward pack that rumbled over the gainline. A maul that chewed through opposition defences. A defensive line that showed tremendous bite and grit.
This was what Munster fans had been waiting for. Unfortunately it was spurned through tragedy, and it’s difficult to imagine Munster maintaining that type of intensity throughout the rest of the season, but it was however a momentary insight into what this team is capable of.
With Munster charging forward and with Conor Murray getting quick, clean ball, Tyler Bleydenaal was able to operate freely and without restriction as he consistently put his teammates in great positions to get over the gainline and to expose Glasgow around the edges.
Bleyendaal was sensational at outhalf but he was the chief benefactor of a relenting Munster forward pack.
CJ Stander, in the number 24 jersey out of respect for Foley, was typically brilliant but so too was Donncha Ryan, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan and Peter O’Mahony.
Munster’s big problem over the last few seasons has been their forward pack’s consistency. The pack often has good parts but the sum often fails to add up as players struggle to back up solid performances from one week to the next.
On Saturday, the forward collective was at it’s rampaging, structured and disciplined best, as they toppled Glasgow at the breakdown, scrum and around the fringes.
Munster paid tribute to Anthony Foley before the game with a stirring rendition of ‘The Isle Of Man’, coupled by a chilling moment of silence before kick-off, but their greatest contribution to Foley may have been what they conjured up on the field, as their performance embodied the characteristics of a man that had symbolised everything that Munster Rugby stands for – Solidarity. Toughness. Pride.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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