Thursday 23 March 2017

David Kelly: Munster re-born as players and fans pay homage to Anthony Foley in fitting fashion

Jaco Taute of Munster celebrates scoring his side's second try during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Jaco Taute of Munster celebrates scoring his side's second try during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Slate grey skies greeted the slow-moving red hordes as the gates opened at Thomond Park for the public acclamation of a hero at the end of a week filled to the brim with unreal grief.

Munster were re-born today as an astounding performance paid perfect homage to the memory of the departed Anthony Foley.

22 October 2016; The Munster team during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; The Munster team during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; The Munster team during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; CJ Stander of Munster, who wore number 24 instead of the usual number 8 jersey retired on the day in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley, takes a moment before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster and Glasgow Warriors players observe a minutes silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster scrum coach Jerry Flannery, centre, flanked by players Peter McCabe, left, and man of the match Tyler Bleyendaal as they sing 'Stand Up And Fight' on the pitch after the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
CJ Stander, left, and Jaco Taute of Munster congratulate each other following their team's victory during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Jaco Taute of Munster reacts at the final whistle following the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
CJ Stander of Munster wearing shirt number 24, after number 8 was retired for the match as a tribute to former Munster head coach Anthony Foley, makes his way off the field following the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster's Simon Zebo sheds a tear during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Antho ny Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Former Munster and Ireland player Paul O'Connell, left centre, with his son Paddy ahead the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster's Simon Zebo, left, sheds a tear as he stands alongside captain Peter O'Mahony during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Antho ny Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster players Conor Murray, left, Simon Zebo, centre, and captain Peter O'Mahony of Munster observe a minute's silence in memory of Munster head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins, centre, ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster supporters wave their flags ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster supporters wave their flags ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster team manager Niall O'Donovan, left, and Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus in conversation before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A view of the match programme before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A supporter adds a Munster Rugby jersey to the tribute, outside the Shannon RFC Club house, in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A supporter reads his the match programme before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Supporters queue to sign a 'Condolence book' in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Supporters queue to sign a 'Condolence book' in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A supporter photographs the Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Connacht Rugby flags, scarves and flowers placed outside the Shannon RFC Club house in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A general view of Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Connacht Rugby flags, scarves and flowers placed outside the Shannon RFC Club house in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Munster supporters read messages on flags, scarves and flowers placed outside the Shannon RFC Club house in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, who died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A floral tribute from all the 'Glasgow Warriors Family' placed in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42.. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A detailed view of a Munster pennant ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A general view of flags, scarves and flowers placed outside the Shannon RFC Club house in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A general view of Munster Rugby, Clermont Rugby and Connacht Rugby flags, scarves and flowers placed outside the Shannon RFC Club house in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A tribute in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A detailed view of a portrait of former Munster head coach Anthony Foley ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A general view of Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Connacht Rugby flags, scarves and flowers placed outside the Shannon RFC Club house in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A general view of Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Connacht Rugby flags, scarves and flowers placed outside the Shannon RFC Club house in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; A general view of Munster Rugby, Leinster Rugby and Connacht Rugby flags, scarves and flowers placed outside the Shannon RFC Club house in memory of the late Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley before the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. The Shannon club man, with whom he won 5 All Ireland League titles, played 202 times for Munster and was capped for Ireland 62 times, died suddenly in Paris on November 16, 2016 at the age of 42. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Before we started we wondered how they could possibly play this match at all; when it all ended, we wondered how they could possibly have played so well.

The emotion had risen to a crescendo hours before the lunchtime kick-off; the memories will last for some days and weeks and months; Munster’s task will be to honour their own tribute with a consistent repetition of today’s glorious valediction and vindication.

From 11am, Books of Condolence were open for all supporters in the Fan Zone under the East Stand and in the Munster Supporters Club bar.

The tributes, flowers and poems that had bedecked the gates of Thomond Park all week had been moved a few yards to line up outside the Shannon bar; Shannon being the spiritual club home of the Foley family.

A special commemorative match programme, documenting Anthony's life in rugby and the tributes paid to him in recent days, was on sale at the ground with a percentage of proceeds going towards a fund or charitable cause to be agreed upon by the Foley family with support from Munster Rugby.

Unsurprisingly, it sold out over an hour before kick-off; the club immediately announced there would be a reprint.

The Supporters’ choir emerged, first to sing the “Fields of Athenry”, during which the crowd waved their flags in unison and brought the chorus with them; for the subsequent “There is an Isle”, the flags were laid down as the chorus led the crowd.

This was the song that was sung, impromptu, outside the gates of the Stades Yves Du Manoir just six days ago when Foley’s death, which began as an unbelievable rumour, found horrible truth in so many hearts.

Warriors left their warm-up before Munster, who then congregated in a huddle beneath the East Stand, before completing a half-lap of the field before returning, for a brief moment of composure, to the dressing-room.

The constant presence of an absence would have stirred them in those moments particularly. From there, they would have heard Sinead O’Brien’s stirring rendition of “Stand up and Fight”, Munster’s adopted anthem with apologies to Bizet’s Carmen.

And, too, perhaps in their hearts, they may have heard their old comrade echoing. “This is a day for men.”

Students from Shannon RFC and his former school of St Munchin's formed a guard of honour as the teams took to the field.

The 26,000 crowd fell pin-drop silent; Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan looked emotional; the only two players who had once shared a playing field with their fallen comrade.

And then, the physical release after the emotional turmoil; the crowd roared as one, their team roared behind him; soon a familiar, Foley-eque maul had launched them into a 7-0 lead within just five minutes.

A maul hewn from the granite-like memory of the giant man himself was the launchpad, Earls’ sweet break and inside ball to Tyler Bleyendaal offering a surge of cathartic release.

When asked to stand up and fight, they were doing just that. In the eighth minute, a moment’s applause rang out for the departed number eight.

Hooker Niall Scannell’s early carries were invested with furious intent; an overthrown lineout hampered his start but only briefly.

His colleagues turned the mistake around on the floor; this was a day to pull together, after all; Scannell, a man atoned, carried furiously once more.

Phase after phase Munster pounded before the ball went right to left and South African Jaco Taute gleefully dived into the corner for a second try; Bleyendaal wafted his conversion wonderfully beneath the sticks as Munster seized elemental control.

The physical edge was always there; Keith Earls was guilty of spear-tackling the Glasgow hooker, Fraser Brown; by the letter of the law, the red card was awarded.

Poor Earls; he wanted to do this for his departed friend, to fulfil his memory; one hopes he did not think that an instantaneous hesitancy denied him that privilege.

The verbals from Alex Dunbar and Stuart Hogg as Earls departed were entirely beyond the spirit of the game; Finn Russell’s missed penalty was jeered by the home crowd.

A sad occasion had become suddenly, briefly, quite sordid.

“Jerome Garces had a job to do,” admitted coach Jerry Flannery high in the stand, sitting where his one-time coaching and playing colleague would normally be sitting.

“He has been quite consistent on that so the priority is controlled emotion. This is a real test of our mettle.”

They were down to 14 men but the 25.014 men in the crowd remained solidly behind them.

Munster held firm too; a third Scannell error from touch led to a scrum on the Glasgow 22 but the Munster eight drove them back in the scrummage with furious energy; again the team responding as one.

Peter O’Mahony, who carried a coffin yesterday was now carrying his team; he chose caution instead of valour; pointing to the sticks and 17-3, adding the first points after the concession of a man, seemed like more then decent accountancy.

Glasgow were rattled, withdrawing their Scottish international scrum after that embarrassment; Finn  Russell then kicked dead from his 10-metre line and they had to pack down once more.

This time, Rory Scannell made a wondrous break off the retreating scum and set Simon Zebo free down the left; remarkably, he made the touchdown despite being tackled.

“Of course I did,” he mouths to team-mates as the TMO again dissects the potential try; the delay is interminable; the award inevitable.

Bleyendaal, place-kicking for fun, sets Munster 24-3 ahead and inconceivable daylight beckons after the darkest of weeks.

“The Fields” ring out once more, halted only when captain O’Mahony, a tearful, public presence on Wednesday trying to do what he could not but manfully succeeding nonetheless, does what he does best and turns over Jonny Gray beneath his posts.

Munster earned another three-pointer before the break and, with a bonus-point try looming, so improbably, O’Mahony ordered his men to the corner. They could be forgiven for not making hay this time.

At half-time the girls’ rugby team from Foley’s native Ballina/Killaloe took part in the mini rugby display alongside Bruff, Waterpark and Tralee/Listowel.

Munster emerged and we wondered could their emotion hold up. Conor Murray dived for the line but he was held up in the opening minutes.

Munster’s scrum held strong; once, twice and then thrice, the referee’s whistle crowed. A bonus point try in the 47th minute and the crowd, once more, roared to the very heavens.

Yet again, in the eighth minute of the half, the disbelieving crowd saluted the departed number eight with eight seconds of applause. A sea of red were drowning in their own emotion, feeding off their heroes as their heroes grew strength from the stands.

O’Mahony was Munster’s first withdrawn sub; he departed to wide acclaim and hugged his team manager, another Shannon man, Niall O’Donovan, who helmed those great Shannon teams harnessed by Foley in the 1990s.

Munster, weary of body and mind but stout of heart, desperately sought the final whistle. Glasgow stole in for their opening try as legs wilted despite willing spirit.

Darren Sweetnam’s stunning double tackle wasn’t enough to eventually prevent Mark Bennett scoring a second with ten minutes left.

Fourteen points in it; all in red who once wished time would retreat in this tragic week, now willed the clock to tick more urgently.

Rory Scannell dismissed all anxiety with his side’s fifth try, his team-mates and he rousing the last resources of their emptying tanks.

Somehow, as everyone has so manfully and womanfully tried to do this week, they got through it. And still the sun shone.

And somewhere else above, perhaps, a smile of recognition for a Munster family that must somehow endure, despite everything.

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