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Saturday 25 March 2017

Perfect end to emotional day as fans say farewell

Thomond Park masses play their part in a day of pride and sadness as fans say fond farewell

The Munster team during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby coach Anthony Foley
The Munster team during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby coach Anthony Foley

Tommy Conlon

In the build-up, it was hard to know whether this game would mean everything, or nothing at all. If Munster won, they'd have done it for Axel and the packed crowd would have been thrilled that he got the Thomond Park send-off for which they'd all hoped.

If they'd lost, well it didn't matter: there are more important things than the result of a rugby match. What really matters is life, health, family, community. And, win or lose, everyone had done right by Axel anyway. All week, everyone from New Zealand to Argentina to Limerick and Killaloe had tried their best to do right by Anthony and Olive and the boys and the extended family.

A sad farewell: Simon Zebo was in tears Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
A sad farewell: Simon Zebo was in tears Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In the privacy of the Foley home, the grieving for Axel will never end. Theirs is a sense of loss which, as they said in their statement last week, "we must work our way through over the coming days, weeks, months and years".

A happy outcome to Munster's European Cup clash with Glasgow Warriors wasn't going to mitigate much this implacable reality. What mattered more was the occasion. In a sense, this would be the last day of public mourning at the end of a week of public mourning. And so the Munster faithful filled Thomond Park to its 25,000 capacity for their final farewell.

It began with a beautiful rendition of The Fields of Athenry by the Munster rugby supporters choir. Thousands of red flags held aloft by fans swayed to the rhythm in a stiff breeze. A song that has become hackneyed from sheer repetition over the years was restored to its full lonesome dignity.

While the choir followed up with a stirring version of There is an Isle, the players from both sides went through their warm-up drills. It was hard to imagine how any of them could find the necessary clarity of thought to play a competitive rugby match in the emotional waves that were now rolling around the stadium.

Munster supporters wave their flags ahead of yesterday’s match at Thomond Park Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Munster supporters wave their flags ahead of yesterday’s match at Thomond Park Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"It's difficult," admitted Rassie Erasmus, Munster's South African Director of Rugby, "everyone knows it's difficult. He would never want us to say the game is secondary. That's not the man he was. But it will be, it will all be about Anthony now, for this weekend. I know the players had so much respect for him that they are trying to do the job the way we think and the way we know Anthony would want us to go on with it." And this was the crux of the matter. As his wife Olive had testified at the funeral on Friday, Foley was all about family. And as the people of Killaloe and Limerick also testified over and over last week, he was also faithfully embedded in his community.

But rugby was far more than just a game to him too. It went to the core of his being. He was made for the game; it was made for him. It was family and community also. It wasn't a separate adjunct to his life; it was wrapped up inextricably in the ties that bind.

And he'd been a master at mixing emotion with performance, passion with clarity, heart with brain. He'd have understood the powerful emotional currents that were brewing here. But he would have embraced them and turned them into a primal performance tool: people energy harnessed into player energy. After the tears, he'd have wanted the points on the board and the win in the bag.

Back inside after their warm-up and before they re-emerged for kick-off, the Munster dressing room reverberated with the noise that was being made upstairs, out on the field. Soprano Sinead O'Brien led the crowd in a rousing version of another Munster standard, the warhorse song Stand up and Fight. It culminated in a thunderous roar around the ground.

Within three minutes of kick-off the stadium was rocking to another roar: their first try of the day; 10 minutes later, another. They were on their way. And the more they scored, the better they played, the more it mattered to the crowd. Every big tackle was lustily cheered. It was catharsis in action; a release of the dam of the sadness; a time to suspend their woes and surrender to the simple pleasures of these time-honoured Thomond rituals.

And then Keith Earls got sent off and the atmosphere momentarily turned rancorous. Suddenly we had another scenario that brought back memories of epic nights on Foley's watch - the sense of siege.

And the siege mentality to match. Down to 14? Not a bother. The players were ravenous now. Simon Zebo scrambled in at the corner. The crowd went ballistic again. Another try shortly after half time. The players were doing Foley proud; the crowd were doing him proud too.

In the end Munster cruised home, 38-17. And oh how it mattered. The day's ceremony ended as it had begun, with a massed chorus of The Fields. Job done, duty fulfilled, the players came back on to acknowledge the crowd. The crowd's applause continued as they circled the pitch, giving thanks to the fans who had given them so much energy on the day.

Then, finally Axel's two sons - Tony and Daniel - joined his team for an emotion-charged rendition of Stand up and Fight. It was raw and full of emotion and some tears.

As a send-off for the great man, it was just about perfect. Only a game? To everyone present, it meant the world.

Sunday Independent

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