Tuesday 26 September 2017

Neil Francis: I wonder wherever Anthony Foley is what he thinks of Munster's situation now

Rassie Erasmus and Anthony Foley
Rassie Erasmus and Anthony Foley
Munster captain Peter O'Mahony Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Sometime back in October 2015 I was in a tricky meeting where live rounds were being exchanged. My phone rang and a 'withheld' number came up. I don't normally answer the phone to blocked numbers but I used this as an excuse for a strategic withdrawal and left the room on the pretext of having the take the call.

"Franno."

"Hiya, who is this?"

"Fitzy . . ."

I didn't recognise the voice and I told him I knew hundreds of Fitzys - which one was he?

"David Fitzgerald"

I knew then. Dave Fitzgerald, formerly of Trinity and one of Limerick's finest sons. A captain of London Irish when I played there and if the term "the nicest guy you will ever meet" is overdone, it was not in this case.

Fitzy returned to London after a spell in Dubai and ensconced himself as chairman of London Irish and was in Dublin for a day or so.

"Could we hook up?"

"When?"

"This afternoon?"

"Can't."

"Tomorrow morning?"

"I can't, give me your number and I will call you."

Fitzy gave me his details and re-emphasised that it would be great to meet for a chat. My schedule never changed. I never made the call and as the months rolled by I remembered my dereliction and so a day after finalising my itinerary for Twickenham for the Six Nations Championship in February of 2016 I decided that I would call Fitzy the day after and see if he could meet up for dinner on the Friday night before the game.

Before breakfast I found out to my horror that the newspapers that day had announced Fitzy's untimely death. After the shock - waves of remorse and regret.

Fitzy had contracted malignant melanoma and knew he didn't have much time left. Our coffee was to say goodbye. Schedules and meetings, the inability in our 'busy lives' to return a call or make time for a man who was selfless to all his friends and make an extra effort to make things work. I felt worthless when it became obvious why he wanted to see me, just for half an hour.

Two months later, sometime between the 16th and 25th of April I rang Anthony Foley. It was the last time we would speak. It was a difficult, awkward conversation with both of us talking over each other and no natural flow to the exchange.

I figured when I asked him 'could he talk?' the answer was 'yes' but he didn't really want to talk. He knew Fitzy and I tried to explain what had happened and the reason for my call.

Solidarity - and to purposely make a call when it was easier to do or say nothing. Life as the Munster head coach for the previous three or four months had not been good for him.

The previous Saturday, Munster had given the worst performance in years as Connacht completed a Pro12 double over the southern province. A 35-14 tonking at the Sportsground. A meek capitulation. Munster didn't even throw a punch never mind land one.

I gave the team in red both barrels but, as a lot of people reminded me after the article, "you took it easy on your pal."

Days later the announcement that the dogs in the street knew was coming came out on the Munster RFC website. Garret Fitzgerald announced that Rassie Erasmus would be the new director of rugby - a newly-formulated position.

Anthony - still officially head coach - would be in charge of lineouts and the breakdown. Fitzgerald was unequivocal in his statement. Erasmus "will lead Munster's senior team."

Anthony didn't have it within him to slag me - it was just professional courtesy to take the call even though he didn't want to take it.

864651_Cropped.jpg
Rob Penney, right, had success in developing and bringing through a number of forwards at Munster

Rob Penney

In the Munster vernacular there is no term "in transition". Tony McGahan and Rob Penney had tried but success or consistency had eluded both of them. When Penney got an offer of a one-year extension, that was as good as saying "here's your coat, what's your hurry?"

I fully bought into the idea of an indigenous coaching ticket. It was a brave move with all involved fully aware of the risks of putting a cabal of recently-retired former players with no real coaching experience in charge of the golden goose.

It would have been much easier to comb the globe again and get a recognised coach with a CV with bells and whistles.

I did see merit in making this project work. The big issue was time. The boys would have to show that they were up to the task quickly. Revenue streams, overheads, stadium repayments - there would be no bedding-in time, there would be no 'I think we have turned a corner' moment. It would be hit your stride or dismount.

In his first year in charge Foley had Clermont and Saracens in the same group. Even the Munster of old would have struggled to get out of that group. The Pro12 offered redemption but Munster were spanked by Glasgow in the final.

The scoreline of 31-13 to the Scots did not really reflect the trend of the game. Munster in binary mode struggled to even come close to Glasgow's multi-dimensional game.

Even Paul O'Connell, playing his last game in a red shirt, was obliterated in contrast to the brio and extravagance of Leone Nakawara.

You felt that the only thing keeping Munster together at that point was the 'S' on O'Connell's vest and cape. Foley would need a new leader for the next season. He was lucky that Peter O'Mahony had matured to the point that the leadership would transfer almost seamlessly.

1256277 (2)-a (Read-Only).png
Munster captain Peter O'Mahony Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Peter O'Mahony

That succession plan went out the window when O'Mahony tore his ACL playing in the World Cup against France and would be out for nearly a year. It is easy to point at such things - but O'Mahony's loss was a huge. Munster would have a huge leadership deficit on the park.

They would not have enough quality throughout the team at any stage of the season and their key position was occupied by Ian Keatley - a competent player but someone whose confidence was visibly draining by the game.

Munster had some shocking performances last season, some unnerving scrapes against the Italian Pro12 sides. Home-and-away losses to Leinster and Connacht and another disheartening non-qualification from their European pool.

It was, though, the loss to Connacht in Thomond and the shop-front-mannequin performance to Stade Francais, ironically in Paris, which prompted the change.

Having to fight a rearguard action to make sure they finished sixth ahead of a still-alive Edinburgh and Cardiff merely confirmed that Munster had made the right call.

I wonder wherever Anthony is what he thinks of Munster's situation now. Erasmus is unquestionably a quality coach but luck is a priceless commodity in coaching.

Foley showed commendable patience in persevering with Tyler Bleyendaal, a player whose career looked over after two-and-a-half years of injury blight. The Kiwi, now playing freely and with purpose when it would have been easier to bin him, is the key factor in Munster's rebirth - Erasmus was lucky here.

The South African has the best back-row in the competition - one that never played as a collective for Foley. They are on fire at the moment and if they continue with this form and stay uninjured …

2016-12-16_spo_27104070_I1.png
Francis Saili looks ahead to his return to rugby – which he hopes might come against Leinster Picture: Sportsfile

After two years of transition the players have magically fallen into place. Taute for Saili, Ryan for Archer and the Scannell brothers had the time to mature. Depth and luck with injury suddenly make Munster a formidable proposition.

I wonder too what Anthony would think of the impetus his death has had on the team. You could almost hear him say, 'Is that what it took?'

You can be certain that Munster will pick up at least four points when Racing come to town next week - if they go one better they would have 21 points - more than enough to qualify.

The issue is the fifth game in their pool this week. Glasgow have recovered themselves and must have been cursing their luck back in October when they had to travel to Thomond Park a day after the funeral.

Glasgow paid their dues in an ill-tempered game but there will be no charity or reverence for this occasion - Gregor Townsend is fresh out of gestures of respect for Foley and they will go like dogs for the win in Scotstoun.

Now we get to know how good Munster are if they get a win here. If they win they will be number one or two seed with a home quarter-final - favourites in my mind for the cup.

Nowhere in professional sports could any team win such a prestigious competition on the back of the death of such an icon.

If Munster manage to win on Saturday evening - I would be at a loss to find anyone in the competition who you could say with certainty would definitely beat them.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport