Sunday 4 December 2016

Munster honour Foley with a display he would have loved

Published 23/10/2016 | 02:30

The Munster team observe a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The Munster team observe a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In the old days, before Thomond Park was remodelled, we would come down here on freezing winter nights to be enthralled by the sight of glamour teams being beaten out the gate. The story varied from week to week but the theme largely stayed the same: you may think you know what it takes to get out of here in one piece, but living it is a different matter.

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Whether you were in the upper reaches of France's Top 14, or England's Premiership, the odds didn't vary much on a successful exit. And until Leicester Tigers in 2007, the bookies were never far off the money. It is ironic that by the time the stadium re-fit arrived, Munster's best days had just gone, and full houses on hectic days would become the exception to the rule.

CJ Stander acknowledges the supporters at the end of the match Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander acknowledges the supporters at the end of the match Photo: Sportsfile

We had one here yesterday, the first time since the Saracens game two years ago this month that there were no yawning gaps on the terraces. But the rawness was of a different strain. In the most awful circumstances imaginable, it was a throwback to the best days in Limerick.

From early morning the streets around the stadium were busy with supporters making their way in and out of the local pubs, many heading over to the Shannon clubhouse where an array of flags, banners and jerseys had been hung to honour a man who had served club, province and country so well.

"I'm proud of how the city of Limerick has reacted to his passing, and how the Irish rugby community has rallied to shepherd our brother to his final resting place," Dominic Crotty told us yesterday from his home in Milwaukee. Crotty first engaged Foley in battle in the Munster Schools Cup, and at various points thereafter before they soldiered together in red.

"From Thomond to Vicarage Road, Bordeaux to Twickenham, Lansdowne Road to the Millennium Stadium, during tough games in Wales and in France, Anthony led from the front in all these battles. Understated yet central to victory: first man in and last man out."

The flags fly at half mast before the match Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA Wire
The flags fly at half mast before the match Photo: Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA Wire

The first sign on the pitch yesterday that this wouldn't be your average day out was when a group of the Glasgow squad - 75 minutes before kick-off - were given a round of applause as they made their way to the changing room. By the time both teams were nearing the end of their warm-ups, and the teams were read out, Glasgow were applauded with uncommon warmth. It reminded you of Lansdowne Road in 1973 when England turned up for a Five Nations Championship game where the previous season both Scotland and Wales had chosen not to travel.

Back then, when the sustained applause died down, Ireland climbed into their opponents as if they were burglars rather than welcome guests. On this occasion, however, Munster were circumspect. The preamble had set the scene: renditions of Shannon's There is an Isle and Munster's Stand up and Fight, a guard of honour provided by representatives of St Munchin's and Shannon. And then a minute's silence, when you could have heard a pin drop, just before kick-off.

But there was something missing. Or rather there was an unwanted extra: a surfeit of respect. Even when Munster had got out to a 14-3 lead it was like you were watching a dress rehearsal where the players were tiptoeing around the subject. Then Keith Earls was sent off for a tip tackle, and everything changed.

Clearly he thought his victim, Fraser Brown, had milked the situation. As he left the field, Earls was remonstrating with Stuart Hogg and you could feel the lid coming off. When we had been talking to Crotty yesterday he recalled that no one did bitterness better than Anthony Foley. It was a pill he loved to roll around the tongue, savouring its every possibility.

How he would have enjoyed this dramatic shift in mood. At his funeral on Friday, Foley's wife Olive delivered a brilliant eulogy in which she said her husband would have been so proud of the turnout, but "would have hated the fuss".

Well, he would have lapped up the way the script had been rewritten here. In a matter of moments the mood had gone from funereal and reserved to naked hostility. In keeping with the revised storyline, Earls - a fella who grew up in the shadow of Thomond Park - had just been slighted. And with the blood boiling a new sort of day unfolded. Glasgow, bless them, looked as if they had just been handed free passes to the roughest bar in town. Who was going to be the first up to buy a round then?

The rights and wrongs of it were neither here nor there. This was the way it was supposed to be: a full house, partisan and vocal, hustling more would-be contenders out the door. Just like the old days, when Anthony Foley was leading the charge.

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