Saturday 3 December 2016

Munster reborn on a day when the province finds new strength in adversity

Munster 38 Glasgow 17

Published 24/10/2016 | 02:30

Ian Keatley celebrates the victory Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ian Keatley celebrates the victory Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

How wretched that something so, so tragic could unveil something so, so beautiful.

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Munster played for two inviolable components on Saturday: the club crest that they represent and the four-lettered name stitched beneath it in black that they remembered; but they played as one.

This was at once a forlorn keening for times past and a clarion call to arms that a future Thomond kingdom might rise again in memoriam to its former chieftain.

"It was a tremendously inspiring occasion," noted the defeated opposition coach, Gregor Townsend. "The last two days have been really inspiring, for obviously terrible reasons, in order to make this come about."

For the locals, the spine-tingling regret of such a stirring afternoon was that rarely, if ever, had Munster played with such fury and control and skill during Anthony Foley's brief reign as head coach. It is for the world like those times when death ends a relationship wherein the last words have been cross ones; the remorse can be substantial.

Tribute

So it is that many feel this morning. Now Munster's greatest tribute to their departed mentor cannot merely be the belated explosion of poise and passion just for one Saturday, but for a host of Saturdays to come in the future.

"That was his frustration," says director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, the South African this week given a six-day crash course he would not have wanted to receive on Irishness, grief and all things Munster rugby. He has emerged a fine man.

"That was his biggest frustration, that he believed so much in the players and he knew what they can do and what they're capable of but sometimes they were not believing in themselves. That was his frustration.

"I think the players should take a lot of learning out of this. Myself, I take a lot of learning out of this and then if we have performances like that - we know we'll never get crowds as emotionally involved as they were today, because this was special.

"But players should realise that the fans will be here if we play like that and the stadiums will be full and that's the way we can rebuild Munster to where it was."

Munster's commemoration to Foley was so deeply respectful; they knew they didn't dare proclaim they wanted to "win" this for him so they chose to represent the man and his teachings. And so it was that a game that many thought shouldn't have mattered ended up proclaiming meaning of much more profound impact than most of us thought possible.

"We would never say we want to win for Axel," added Erasmus. "We actually tried our best not to even think that way.

"Because you just think that for a hero and a legend and friend and a father and a buddy and a soulmate, and everything that he was for different people, to put your neck out there and say we're going to win for you? You can't put something on the line that's so important for somebody who has passed away, to say something stupid like that."

Only Keith Earls veered from the resolution, tipping over the edge and bringing Fraser Brown with him; in some ways, it poured petrol upon the slow-burning drama. "You know, it's probably one of the single times in my entire coaching career that I could actually understand his actions in that tackle, you know," explains Erasmus. "It's emotion, he's psyched up, then the hooker's momentum going a certain way. And probably the referee made the right call there.

"But it's almost understandable in a way. Because it is tough to control your emotions, you could see the way we scrummed and mauled, that there was a lot of emotion in there along with the technique.

"And then Keith was really up there emotionally. He knows, we understand that. He spoke at half-time, said that we were in the game and we can still win it the way we want to do things.

"He's obviously now a bit sad about that but with us getting the win and him helping us through the game, with is input and technical knowledge, he was still part of it up until the end. I'm not saying it was the right thing to do, I just understand what happened."

And so, instead of sundering them, Earls' red glued his squad together even tighter. But, as Peter O'Mahony averred, there was technique within the fury; raw emotion was an energy that would only take them so far. It seemed they might flag, as legs wilted late on to mock stout spirits. How did they keep on keeping on?

"Listen, they did it for Axel. It's as simple as that. If you've got something like that in your heart, when you're really tired that doesn't go away. It stays there.

"You can't keep it, for years to come, for months to come, you can't only rely on that because, in the most respectful way, life slowly moves on.

Difference

"But it was tough to get guys off the park. It was tough to keep guys from wanting to go onto the park and make a difference there, which again is just a tribute to Axel and the respect the players had for Axel."

And so we were treated to a thunderous evocation of the inextricable bond between supporters and team.

A theme confirmed when the squad departed from post-match protocol and unveiled 'Stand Up and Fight' in the most public manner possible, with Foley's two boys at its heart. Truly, this seemed as if, even after plunging deeply into despair, the seeds of rebirth were being sown.

CJ Stander spoke of how boys became men. Men - and the women beyond the dressing-room - grew stronger despite the swingeing sword of weakness that seared so many hearts.

"We need to kick on from here," says Stander. "The way the young players played was his legacy."

None of them will ever have to endure a week like this again; hence, seemingly daunting obstacles on the field may only now seem like trifling hurdles.

Nobody wanted this week to happen but now that it has, everything seems to have changed utterly. "Maybe sometimes we didn't understand how he did things," says the coach. "I'm so glad that came through." If all move on in the same manner, the tribute to Foley's legacy could not possibly be greater.

Munster - S Zebo (R O'Mahony 78); D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell, K Earls (yc 17); T Bleyendaal (I Keatley 66), C Murray (D Williams 76); D Kilcoyne (B Scott 72), N Scannell (D Casey 61; N Scannell 68), J Ryan (S Archer 68), D Ryan (R Copeland 78), B Holland, P O'Mahony capt (J O'Donoghue 61), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander.

Glasgow - S Hogg; S Lamont, A Dunbar (M Bennett 61), S Johnson, R Hughes; F Russell (P Murchie 61), H Pyrgos (A Price 48); G Reid (A Allan 27), F Brown P MacArthur 48), Z Fagerson (S Puafifi 44), T Swinson, J Gray (capt), R Harley, R Wilson, J Strauss (S Favaro 35).

Ref - J Garces (France)

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