Wednesday 28 June 2017

Munster return to Paris: Staying strong amidst the grief

Familiarity of routine a comfort for Munster as they re-visit a city of romance that was so recently a scene of tragedy following death of legend Anthony Foley

The bond between the Munster players is stronger than ever and they have delivered a series of remarkable performances in recent weeks. Photo: Sportsfile
The bond between the Munster players is stronger than ever and they have delivered a series of remarkable performances in recent weeks. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

For many of us returning to Paris, this morning will dawn with a premonition of an unknowable burden. Munster make the same journey this week but as different people, retracing familiar steps but with a more mindful footing.

When Munster flew to Paris in October, they shared images of a gleeful group, posing unabashed for selfies on the flight from Shannon, bound for a game that, in the most tragic circumstances imaginable, would never be played.

Simon Zebo tweeted a picture broadcasting smiles and happiness on a Paris-bound flight that included Anthony Foley on its passenger list; a week later in Thomond Park for that seminal Glasgow game, a lone tear streaming down Zebo's face encapsulated a quite different mood.

For they had come back without Foley. His bereft colleagues were utterly altered but knew that, although Foley would never again be with them in the heat of battle, they would have to sustain themselves somehow, some way.

And they have. What united them in grief last October has sustained them in belief ever since. They never wanted to find themselves in such awful circumstances but events dictated that they must.

And so, for every weekend since, they have prepared for and played rugby and, incredibly, lost just once, as they sought to negotiate a passage through at once an overwhelming grief and also the sense that a legacy needed to be upheld.

They have maintained that unconscionable bargain in the most stressful of circumstances, digging deep within themselves to pay the only tribute to memory possible in a time like this, to give as much of themselves as they could.

Conduit

Remarkably, the conduit of Munster's ability to resource themselves was transmitted through someone who had only arrived in this country a few short months earlier, someone who could have had no conceivable guide to map the geography of such deep-seated grief.

Rassie Erasmus has offered a lightning rod for how Munster have managed the weeks and months since Foley's loss, whether the private sustenance offered to the bereaved family or the tribute of public performance on the field that owe so much to the squad's departed mentor.

After everyone's world fell apart on that Sunday morning, Erasmus armed himself with the emotional and practical tools to ensure that, however impossible it seemed, he would attempt to return it to its axis.

His approach was uncomplicated and rooted in simplicity, with a resolve hewn from the presence that had so suddenly departed. For the seeds of the response had been sown even before Foley left them.

Two nights before the fateful game that never took place, Erasmus and Foley were in congress, addressing Munster's stuttering start and committing to a necessarily more rudimentary game-plan in the aftermath if a bruising Dublin defeat to Leinster.

They knew it was a matter of time before everything clicked; Foley's previous reign as head coach had been dogged by injury and a sense that at times his team were trying too hard to attain perfection.

Glasgow could have offered an all to unreal glimpse of that vision given the circumstances of that occasion but their performances since - their sole defeat away to Leicester via a last-minute, long-range penalty a rare dip - have added substance to the initial over-riding emotional impetus.

The game-plan is relatively straightforward but it bears the unmistakable imprint of Foley. At once, it satisfied the immediate vow not to "win" for Foley - a promise far too trite, for what does one do if one loses? - but merely to perform as he would have wished them. That, in itself, has been a sufficient tribute.

And so Munster's squad have not shied from referencing Foley's memory, because the simple routine of training and playing as he would have wished is something that can be accomplished within reason.

They pass his office every day; his absence is overpowering but quietly inspiring. Every player, even if first looking to Foley for inspiration, can now also draw it from within themselves to become self-sustainable.

Talk to any Munster player and they will tell you that the comfort of routine, of keeping on keeping on, has grounded them. For they know that is exactly what Foley would have done himself. A quiet, dignified memoriam. To wallow in the magnificent triviality of the everyday.

And so this week, against a side who seem mired in chaos yet are unbeaten at Colombes in seven league games and 24 of 26 in all competitions, they will draw on Foley's approach.

"That's something that Axel would have talked about and loved," says captain Peter O'Mahony. "The week you go away to France and how you prepare and how tough it is but how good it is if you do play well

"Look, we're not going to think about Axel any more than we do every other week. The style of play we're playing has him written all over it so we reference him in every meeting, more than once."

Returning to Paris retrieves clear potential for the re-emergence of traumatic memory but only by maintaining the stoic nature of their recent existence can they seek to meet it.

"Even sometimes in a game, you make a mistake or you do something well, you would be thinking, Jesus he is going to hammer me for that now," smiles hooker Niall Scannell.

"Those are the things which are not going to go away quickly. Everyone will deal with that differently.

"We will try and not make it too much of an emotional trip, going over there, but I'm sure it will be strange.

"Felix Jones said it to me getting on the plane in Paris, 'this will probably always be the thing you think of when you come to Paris, forever more', and that is probably true.

Tribute

"So it is just about focusing on the rugby side of things now. We need to make the performance a tribute to the occasion as opposed to letting it bog us down."

That has been the key: they carry themselves easier now, less burdened by expectation or pressure.

"The players see so many serious things in life and sometimes you make rugby one of those," notes Erasmus.

"And it doesn't have to be. It can be such a thing that you just enjoy it and be honoured to do it. And as long as we, as coaches and managers, show that and tell them, 'Listen, it doesn't matter if you make a mistake on the rugby pitch, it is not the end of the world. There are much worse things that happen.'"

Munster have held themselves so delicately in what has been a most public grieving process; it may never end but returning to Paris can offer a minor sense of closure, perhaps.

They cannot ignore the circumstances, nor necessarily confront them bald-headed. They will simply let them be. Doing it for themselves because that in itself will do it for him. They have proved that sometimes all you can give of yourself can be enough.

The circle of grief will never end. It is all Munster can do simply to make it more bearable.

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