Sunday 25 September 2016

Billy Keane: Foley loves his players to a fault and they'll stand firm for their general

Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30

Munster head coach Anthony Foley. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Munster head coach Anthony Foley. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

The toughest part of this job is when you have to put friendship to one side. I have been friends with Anthony Foley ever since he was a teenager on the way up.

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We met for the first time at the Irish Open in Mount Juliet. I was a civilian back then and was always on the look-out for free tickets and free beer, in tough times. My brother John obliged with the pass in.

That day in Mount Juliet must have been 20 years ago. Mick Galwey, who used to deliver beer to our pub and have the two dinners with us , mine and his, asked me to join him for a drink in a big tent with a band and finger food.

We stayed a while. It was off season. The company wouldn't let me buy a drink.

Even this young lad by the name of Keith Wood went up for a round. Keith had only the use of one hand, with his shoulder strapped up in an impossible position like a man holding on to a roof strap on the Luas.

Woody was just starting to make the breakthrough at the time. He had to go up to the bar four times to bring down the four pints.

The barman and the humanitarian broke out in me. I jumped up to help Woody. "Don't go up," said young Foley. "Leave him his bit of dignity." I thought the kid was going to cry.

They physically restrained me from buying my round. Later we went out on to the course to support Graham Spring who played very well. I insisted on buying the next three rounds at a greenside bar.

When I was handing over my fiver the bar man said, "sir, this is a free bar."

The boys were in stitches. The three amigos went on to become captains of Munster and Ireland. Foley followed on from his dad Brendan who played on the Munster team that defeated the All Blacks. Moss Keane always said Foley senior was the toughest.

Not overly big for second row, Brendan always held his own and more against the giants. Daughter Rosie was the best player we had in the early years of women's rugby.

Munster is in the Foleys' blood. Briseann and dúchas and all that.

Anthony was captain when Munster won their first European Cup and the glory of that day will forever live with us. Sometimes on day-off Mondays, in the dead of winter, when the form isn't good by me, I pull across the curtains and stick on the DVD of that game. You wouldn't be long cheering up.

Foley became the leader when Gallaimh left. The Munster dressing room was the perfect workplace. There was constant pranking and slagging and a searing honesty, mixed with guts and professionalism. There were fights too and more importantly makings up.

Some of the attempted bullying of Anthony Foley, on- line especially, has been savage.

Have you any sense of loyalty to a man who has given all of his adult life for the cause? Where is your humanity and how would you feel if your work performance were subjected to such unrelenting and inaccurate criticism. Where are your values?

There is nothing wrong with fair comment. Foley has made mistakes. The early subbing of Johnny Holland was a case in point. But who gave Holland his big chance? It was Foley's biggest gamble and it seems to be paying off.

It has to be said though that the team play in patches. For 20 minutes Munster outplayed Connacht by playing exciting Connacht rugby.

I know there is 80 in these boys and next season could be a big year for Munster. The new coach will come into a team on the way up.

There are valid excuses for the lack of consistency over the season and within games. Munster's pre-season plans were sacrificed for the World Cup. Rugby is more structured in terms of planning than any other game and Foley is a planner.

Paul O'Connell and Peter O' Mahony were lost leaders. Donnacha Ryan only came back in mid-season. But Munster are now just one game away from Champions Cup qualification.

Foley loves his players to a fault. He was too loyal to some and they will come good again. We all go through bad times.

"They are a great bunch of lads," says Foley. "They are always honest and doing their best. You couldn't ask for more."

There was no talk about him being moved down to number two with Erasmus taking over next season.

Is it like the man who has a mistress and a wife? The wife of many years does all the cleaning and cooking while the mistress is taken out for big dinners and has the full use of the credit card.

I hope Foley stays on. All that Munster lore and knowhow, the link with the glory teams and past times should be a Munster constant.

Whatever he decides it will be the best decision not so much for Anthony Foley, but for Munster.

I couldn't find any mention anywhere of the smartest tactical move of the year.

Edinburgh looked like they were going to send Munster out of Europe. Word came from Foley's perch that the team should go with the rolling maul.

For us Munster boys, the steamroll to glory was a joy to behold. Hours of work went in to the makings of that maul.

When many would have cracked, Foley kept his cool. His maul call was a matter of practicality and genius under the most intense pressure. Edinburgh were as crushed as mushy peas.

And if Munster win today and qualify for Europe that will be one more debt we owe to Foley - the greatest Munster man of them all.

Irish Independent

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