Saturday 3 December 2016

Yet another memorable night at Thomond for countless reasons

Tommy O'Donnell

Published 18/11/2016 | 02:30

O’Donnell: The Maori All Blacks tribute to Axel Foley last Friday night was awesome. SPORTSFILE
O’Donnell: The Maori All Blacks tribute to Axel Foley last Friday night was awesome. SPORTSFILE

With no game to prepare for this weekend we have been given a full week off from organised training as a squad, and as usual the lads have scattered to the four corners of the planet.

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It's impressive, but as soon as they get any sort of a break at all most of them head off to see some new places.

If we were to plot them on a world map it would make for an interesting project, but from Morocco to Belgium to the US, they are all over the place, so I hope they are enjoying their down time.

I took a short break to Powerscourt Hotel and enjoyed a bit of luxury for a day but that was the height of it for me. I'm back in Limerick since then - there was study to be done and work to get on with as well as other bits and pieces, so I've kept busy.

While we have been given the week off, there is still a few individual sessions that we need to complete to keep ticking over.

No matter where the lads are in the world they will have to find a green patch and stretch the legs a small bit and there is also bit of gym work to take care of.

You can imagine after the amount of work that we have done that a sudden halt for a week followed by an immediate restart wouldn't be conducive to avoiding knocks and niggles.

I've been in to UL on a couple of occasions this week to do my work. Seeing as I live over the road it is the obvious place to do my training, but it was definitely a lot quieter around the place.

It's so handy for us now, we can gain access whenever we want with the fingerprint recognition at the door, so I went in, pumped up the music and did my few sessions.

There was a few of the lads that are in college still around trying to catch up on their assignments - myself included - while a couple of the injured players have had to stick around to complete their rehab schedule, unless the medical team have signed them off for a few days' rest too.

Any time we break up it is always great to leave with a win in our pocket, but the victory over the Maori All Blacks was pretty special.

I was very surprised when Rassie called me into his office during the week, but I was just delighted and honoured when he told me I was going to captain the side. It gave me a real focus for the week, I wanted to bring out a good performance to mark the occasion. And it turned out to be an amazing experience.

I went out and walked the pitch about an hour and 20 minutes before kick-off and I thought it was a nice evening, but ten minutes later when the kickers came back in, they were absolutely drenched.

TURNED

The weather had turned bad, but when we went out for the team warm up most of the lads just lay down on the ground and rolled around in the wet to get acclimatised to the conditions. It was rotten, but we didn't care.

The crowd was in good and early too, so I was able to lead the lads around the field before we went back down the tunnel, which was a real buzz.

As captain, I didn't have to say anything after that either; you could tell we were all ready for the game. Then, being able to lead Munster out for the first time as captain at a wedged Thomond Park was just incredible. The sense of pride I had was amazing.

There is a vibe here with Munster Rugby again, I think, and it's really great place to be at the moment. And we went out and did the business.

Facing the Haka is a real experience, and the way they laid out the shirt with 'AF' for Axel on the back was awesome. I was very impressed with the reverence their captain showed when giving the shirt to Tony and Dan, but even the Haka they chose on the night was like a warrior's send-off.

During the game, we switched off for a three- or four-minute period and they did real damage, but other than that we were on the money.

But the weather suited us too, that sort of awful night doesn't bother us and we put pressure on them. Any loose ball on the ground we were after it, there was either a Munster body diving on it or fly-hacking the ball up the field.

While it didn't go their way on the night, their young No 8 Akira Ioane really caught the eye. He was incredibly hard to tackle. I must watch back and see what he does when being tackled. Without smashing lads away he has an uncanny ability to twist and turn out of contact. He has great awareness to almost avoid the hit and constantly make an extra yard.

At one stage I stripped the ball from him and it popped up, but he managed to catch it again under pressure and still make five yards. He is a pretty special player and I'd hate to see what he'd do if he had a dry ball. I'll be watching him to see how he gets on in the years to come.

As the Maori people have incredible traditions, upstairs after the game they did another presentation and sang a song for us. That's their tradition when they come into another club and it was pretty special. The supporters up in the box afterwards weren't expecting that so it was all a real treat for them too.

It is tomorrow week before we play again with Treviso coming to Thomond Park (2pm) and with Ireland playing Australia later that day (5.30pm) it makes for a big afternoon of rugby. But no doubt the die hard Munster fans will be in Thomond Park to shout us on.

With what we have built in the last few weeks we will all be keen to get back into Thomond Park. This block of games rolling into Christmas is incredibly important to us and we'll be desperate to get it off to a winning start.

Irish Independent

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