Saturday 24 February 2018

Alan Quinlan: Foley is a born leader but he needs followers

The 2006 team was filled with characters - can we say the same about current group?

Anthony Foley
Anthony Foley

Alan Quinlan

The train makes its way out of Heuston Station on Sunday April 25 in 2004.

It is bright and cool on the outside but dark and miserable on the inside. We've just lost to Wasps. Just lost a Heineken Cup semi-final. Again.

That's five years now where we've been knocking on the door. Finalists in 2000, semi-finalists in 2001, finalists in 2002, semi-finalists in 2003 and on this day, we've fallen short once more.

So we're not in the mood to look for excuses and draw comfort from sympathisers saying we've just been involved in one of the greatest games of rugby ever played. Instead, we're searching for answers.

Looking back now, was this when our journey to our 2006 Heineken Cup triumph began? It was certainly one of the key moments along the way because as we cut our way through Kildare and Laois on our way back to Limerick, an investigation begins.

Why did we lose? We'd conceded late tries. Someone made the point that our fitness wasn't good enough and we nodded in agreement. That was the thing about that Munster group. If a fella felt he could make a contribution, he knew he'd get a fair hearing and at different stages of our careers, we'd all pipe up.

That day on the train, plenty of people had their say. "We've good players but not enough depth," I remember hear someone say.

"And we need to be located in one centre, not two." Those were my thoughts.

Uniquely, among the elite of European rugby, Munster had two bases: Cork and Limerick. And in a way it worked because we didn't have to live in each other's pockets, we could live in our own homes and not worry about relocating to a city where we didn't know many people.

In some ways, no doubt that was a help.

But was it a hindrance?

By 2004, after losing yet another game we could have won, we wanted to explore every possible avenue available to us. And Jerry Holland, our team manager, grabbed the bull by the horns, setting up a meeting between four of the Limerick lads and four of the Cork fellas.

And we all thrashed it out. Having two bases made perfect sense in one way yet was counter-productive in another.

The travel involved for a day's training was too much. You always felt you were trying to squeeze too much in to the sessions where we were all together because we were separated on the Monday and the Wednesday of match-weeks.

And we knew that the teams who had beaten us over the course of those five years were spending their Monday to Fridays together in the one training centre.

So when we met, the Cork and Limerick groupings, there was no clash of the clans. Just honesty and plain talking. And that's where Anthony Foley really used to impress me.

By nature, he's a calm individual. Nothing fazes him. And - before big matches - I used envy his composure. Where I'd be procrastinating, trying to picture scenarios that'd unfold in the game, he'd be quietly confident.

It wasn't arrogance that he possessed, just that air of self-assurance, a real mental strength that meant that when he spoke, people listened.

In that meeting, organised by Jerry, he made his points: that one training centre rather than two, made sense, that we needed a cutting edge in our team to complement the pack we had, that we needed to develop more depth in our squad.

His words had an impact. No doubt it had - because while we have had to wait from 2004 until this year for the training bases to be trimmed from two to one - his other ideas were implemented.

By 2006, when we finally got over the line and won the competition, the depth and cutting edge were there. And Axel was our captain, which meant an awful lot to him, because he had come close to getting the position before, after Mick Galwey retired.

Everyone respected him. He may not have been a screamer, or a roarer, but his words had an effect.

What helped, though, was the dressing room he was speaking to. The faces looking back at him were hardened by experience. Big characters filled that room. O'Gara, O'Connell, Hayes, Wallace, Leamy, O'Callaghan, Horan, Sheahan, Kelly, Horgan, Stringer, Payne, Halstead. Every one of them a leader.

They'd show it in different ways. Some just knew what to say at the right time. Axel was like that. Like in that meeting with Jerry Holland. He'd sense the importance of the day and he'd get his point across.

Bull Hayes was another. By nature he's a quiet man. Yet there were times when he'd let a roar, usually in the lead-in to an away match in France, when he'd be taking flak from some pundit somewhere a bout Munster's supposed weakness in the scrum. So when we'd be working on scrummaging in training, he'd scream: "Get it f****** right. Everyone put it in."

And we did.

Yet the thing about that Heineken Cup winning team was the fact that leadership wasn't confined to the more experienced players.

Jerry Flannery was new to the squad that year and he inspired all of us with his attitude. Similarly, Barry Murphy was new to the group and the brightness he provided around the training paddock had a major impact.

Then there was Ian Dowling, another new arrival. He'd win 50/50 aerial battles he had no right to win and we'd all draw energy from that level of determination and courage.

And that's what I miss most about my rugby career, the moments just before training or just before matches, when I'd look around at all these fellas and just know that they'd deliver.

Some days it would be ROG, but we all took it in turns. Dowling would do it. Murphy would. Axel would. We all did. We'd inspire one another. We'd sense when a fella was beating himself up over a mistake and we'd pick him up.

We knew we had good players but also knew that there were some tough f****** among us. We'd lose big games but always fight back because it was a team filled with characters. Axel was the captain in 2006 but the squad was full of leaders.

And that was one of the main reasons we won the trophy that year, because when critical moments arrived in that campaign - like in the aftermath of our defeat to Sale in our opening game, or when we were a point down at home to the Dragons with 10 minutes to go, or when we had to thump Sale in our final game to secure a home quarter final - we delivered under pressure.

Mick Galwey always used to say that you need to have an angry reaction when you lose. We had that.

Does this current Munster group have it? They showed they did against Stade earlier in the season. But they need to show it this Friday against Edinburgh. My fear, however, is that there is not the same depth of leadership or quality in this squad as there was in the 2006 one.

That's not to say that leaders aren't there. But they can't depend solely on their Irish internationals for guidance.

Everyone has to share the responsibility and realise that people's futures are on the line, that jobs in the organisation could go if Munster don't secure Champions Cup rugby next season.

They need new leaders to step up. And belief. It still counts for a lot.

Irish Independent

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