Monday 24 July 2017

Alan Quinlan: Erasmus programme has sparked the resurrection of Foley as well as Munster

I feared the worst for my old friend when the Rassie appointment was made, but it was the best thing that could have happened to Munster's head coach

Anthony Foley Picture: Sportsfile
Anthony Foley Picture: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Imagine how it must have felt. You are head coach of the only team you have ever been with - your home province.

And things haven't been going well. For the second year in a row, your injury-ravaged team failed to get out of its European pool, and now, as the season draws to a close, it is inevitability you won't make the Pro12 play-offs, and a possibility you mightn't even make the top six.

And that is when the news breaks that Rassie Erasmus is coming in as Munster's director of rugby. So while you get to keep your title of head coach, in a stroke of a pen, someone else's pen, your status has been undermined.

It stings and the reason you feel the pain is because Munster is in your blood. Your father wore the shirt before you. This is only team you ever played for, and - after retiring - the only team you have coached.

As a player that I worked alongside, I knew Anthony Foley to be a brilliant captain, a leader, a guy who could motivate those around him. But it was a different world when you were top of the pile and you could look around the dressing room and see O'Gara, O'Connell and O'Callaghan staring back at you.

But last season it was not just a team he had to address - but everything. He was managing travel arrangements, hotels, contracts, his coaching staff and - most pressingly of all - expectations. Munster, twice Heineken Cup winners, perennial challengers for club rugby's biggest prizes, were struggling.

And the buck stops with the guy at the top. When results aren't going well you have to take the ups and downs, strap yourself in for sport's rollercoaster ride.

So I had a lot of empathy for him, especially around the time I stood in a television studio and called the team "borderline disgraceful" after a dismal loss to Stade Francais. At times like that, when the team has lost its sixth match out of seven, you need, as a head coach, to have "balls like a Bengal tiger" to quote Pat Shortt. You'd want to be bullet proof.

Being captain was easier - not just because the responsibilities weren't as great. Any manager, would love to have been surrounded by the kind of quality Munster had back then, experienced, talented men who had an unbelievable drive to improve personal, as well as collective, standards. When you are coaching that type of team, you can afford to stand back and observe, which Declan Kidney did, and every now and then let everyone know you are the boss.

Last year Anthony had that status. But this year?

There is this almost surreal scenario where the guy who was the No 1 is still there on the payroll and still carries the title of head coach, but is no longer the one with the final say. Instead that belongs to the fella sitting in an office across the corridor with 'Director of Rugby' written on his door.

When the news broke last April that Erasmus was on the way in, things may have looked good for Munster but not for Foley. Effectively he had to relinquish the reins and from thereon in, it could have turned sour.

He didn't know Erasmus terribly well. Another man could have arrived cracking the whip, making life uncomfortable for Anthony and the existing staff. By the same token, another person in Foley's position could have worked to rule, seeing out his contract, engaging in a prolonged, public sulk.

Tellingly, he hasn't. He is an unbelievable rugby man and while I have heard a thousand people say the Munster job came too soon for him, he had take the opportunity when it arose.

Did he make mistakes? For sure. We all do in life. The situation he found himself in last year cannot have been easy. The pressure was taking its toll and sometimes that happens when you are head coach, something I witnessed with my own eyes when Alan Gaffney and Tony McGahan were in charge.

All of a sudden, I saw their personalities change. They were taken out of their comfort zone and were that little bit more temperamental, that bit more frustrated if things weren't going well. And I can imagine that pressure could impact on a coach's family too.

The pressure can be suffocating.

So this is why Erasmus's arrival can be seen as a good thing for Foley, even if his ego must have been bruised.

But having known the man so long - playing with him at Shannon first and then Munster - I have frequently watched him bounce back from setbacks.

Those same characteristics apply now. He has already bounced back and is doing what he loves once again - getting out on the training paddock, working with the players, getting his ideas across. From what I hear, he's energised and enthused and that thus far, the Erasmus-Foley dynamic has worked.

So you'd think, in your head, Foley has to take some credit for this and for the fact he has the Munster pack playing well again.

But here's the thing. Erasmus is the guy receiving the plaudits because he is the one doing the vast majority of the press and television interviews.

Yet knowing Foley as well as I do, he won't mind staying out of the limelight for a while, learning more about coaching and also about himself. As a coach, he is still an unbelievably young man. This restructure of the workforce at Munster can work for, rather than against, him.

He is getting the freedom he wouldn't have received last year, when everything was lumped on his plate. The fact is Munster needed a director of rugby, and Erasmus's arrival has helped share the development and recruitment roles.

The South African's fingerpints are visible on everything Munster are doing this term. From the signings they have made to the style of play. Rassie is the headmaster, the one with the final say, but significantly he allows guys to have their voice. From what I'm hearing they share a good bond, all those coaches. Foley's voice is still a strong one in the dressing room. He addresses the players - as Erasmus does - before games and at half time.

There is positive energy around the place again, an understanding they need to get better, a blunt honesty from Erasmus. "Who is the weak team in our Champions Cup group?" he asked rhetorically earlier this week. "It's probably us."

Yet he's determined to change that. He has embedded himself in Munster rugby, showing a lot of respect to the whole environment, to Foley, to the players, focusing on getting the squad to become more mentally resilient.

And it's working. Working because Erasmus arrived saying 'I am here to help not to beat the crap out of anyone'.

If it was me, if I was head coach, and then someone came in above me, my nose would be out of joint. I'd be frustrated but sometimes change can be good rather than challenging. By getting on with things and getting stuck into his new reality, Foley's credibility has been enhanced rather than diminished.

Erasmus, no doubt, has the final say but he will need Foley for Munster v Leinster week because Anthony knows what this fixture means. So even though he may not be getting credit now, he won't care. The one common goal is to get the team back winning. Will that lead to a European Cup this year? No, it won't. Will they even beat Leinster today? Maybe not.

But one thing is clear. Munster are harder to beat this season. There has been a turn, the start of a resurrection. Of Munster. And Foley.

Irish Independent

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