Sunday 18 February 2018

'From boys to men' - Munster pay Foley the ultimate compliment

The sons of the late Anthony Foley, Tony (L) and Dan, join CJ Stander and the rest of the squad on the field after Saturday’s game SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
The sons of the late Anthony Foley, Tony (L) and Dan, join CJ Stander and the rest of the squad on the field after Saturday’s game SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The No 8 jersey remained hanging in the dressing room. CJ Stander instead wore 24 but the four letters a-x-e-l stitched beneath the crest ensured that Munster's fallen hero remained close to their hearts.

A few yards behind the west stand, the tributes to Anthony Foley were moved from the front gates of Thomond Park to in front of the Shannon clubhouse where he had celebrated his five All-Ireland League titles.

Shannon intend to retire the No 8 jersey from their underage teams right up to the seniors, while a special jersey will be hung up in the clubhouse to honour one of their most famous sons.

Munster's coaching staff wore black ribbons pinned beneath the crest, the players had the same on their post-match suits.

This was a day that was all about one man and one team, and despite the fact that Glasgow were totally overawed by the occasion, they too played their part in ensuring that Foley got the send-off he deserved.

Members of Glasgow's coaching staff paid their own respects in the form of a black armband with 'Axel' embroidered on it.

The tributes are endless. Some more obvious than others but few were as poignant as Stander wearing No 24. For this is a South African who has fully bought into the Munster culture since he arrived in the province four years ago.

There were tough days early on but Foley played a key role in helping to ensure that Stander settled into his new surrounds.

"It was a very, very tough week. I'm very proud of how the boys stood up. A lot of boys turned into men this week," a visibly choked up Stander said.

"I felt that he (Foley) brought a lot to that jersey, he gave everything in that jersey, I think giving that jersey off for the day was a great touch.

"You can't do him justice in that jersey so playing at 24 was still a massive honour. As I said, you only get it for a game, you're just borrowing it from the next guy.

"For me, it's going to be a massive honour to play in that 8 jersey again. It means I'm going to have to play harder, make him proud.

"It's in the changing room, on my hanger, I'm not sure what's going to happen in the future. It's something we're probably going to have to talk about. It's a special jersey, there's only one of them, there's not even two of them, you won't get it again."

To a man, Munster made Foley proud on Saturday but perhaps the most profound aspect of their stunning performance was that it was the kind of display that Foley has always insisted is within them.

Foley endured some tough times in his two-year tenure in charge but the pack that dominated Glasgow all featured regularly under his tutelage.

"Rassie said before the match, 'Boys, if we're going to do justice to Axel we have to play the way he wants us to play'," Stander explained.

"I've sat here week in and week out and told you that we made mistakes, did this and need to fix that. Today, we performed the way Axel wanted us to three years ago, since we started.

"I think he really got frustrated with us because he taught us everything he wanted and we didn't really go out there and enjoy ourselves and play the way he wanted us to play.

"We're our own team now, if we drop the standards from what we did today, it'd be a shame. We know what we can do now, this is the way we want to play, the way Axel wanted us to play.

"This is a great benchmark to say, 'Look boys, this is it, this is where we need to go bigger and better than this'. I'm looking forward to the next match.

"We were down to 14 men for 60 minutes and there was a stage, about 53 minutes in, we were tired, it was an emotional week and everything just came on top of each other.

"I looked up, everyone looked up and we just got this massive roar, it lifted you.

"It really lifted you, a guy like Jaco Taute - when he scored his try, I heard there's a great picture of him holding on to his crest, stuff like that, the crowd picks you up.

"That's one of the best days I've ever had, in this stadium, and I don't think I'll ever have a bigger day than that.

"Normally with a game like this, I'm bigged up and ready to go, but I was calm today, I don't know why. I think with the support we got, and with all we went through during the week, it was tough, but it made it easier with the support we saw."

It was left to two South Africans to front up to the media and explain just how tough the last week has been and the way in which Stander and Rassie Erasmus spoke so impeccably left little doubt that Munster are in safe hands.

In the most difficult of weeks, they both learned the true meaning of what it means to be from Munster and Ireland.

"Everyone was grieving, to see all the support the family got, that we got, it was massive," Stander added.

"Especially at the funeral, to see the amount of people that were there, that's the thing, with the Irish culture, when one goes… everyone is behind him. It just shows the culture is supporting.

"They look after their own. I think they lost a son, someone that brought the jersey and the crest at his best capabilities and it was amazing to see the support, the people coming out to support the family and players, it meant a lot.

"I've always loved that, and it's a thing I'll cherish for life."

Munster's task now is to somehow bottle Saturday's performance and build on it for the rest of the season.

A long road lies ahead but after passing the first major hurdle, those boys who have turned into men have helped lift the mood of a sombre province.

Irish Independent

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