Wednesday 11 December 2019

Anthony Foley must bring back the Thomond fear factor

Munster head coach Anthony Foley
Munster head coach Anthony Foley
A member of the Munster backroom staff records training in Bishopstown yesterday
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

"I just remember the fear. People talk about the familiarity of Thomond and the lift you get from the crowd, but the place can be intimidating for us" - Anthony Foley in 'Axel, A Memoir'

ON APRIL 5 last, Toulouse were added to the list of great teams who could not handle the Thomond Park heat.

Everything that is good about Munster rugby was on display. A full-strength team, backed by a packed Limerick crowd, gutted Europe's most successful club who looked spooked by their surrounds.

The win would extend Munster's 11-month-old unbeaten record at home, but as they left the field to rapturous applause, the men in red had little inkling that they were about to embark on another piece of history in the coming months and become the first Munster team to lose three games in succession at their famous home ground.

Insipid

On Friday, the scenario could not have been any more different as Munster emerged to a half-empty stadium and responded with an insipid display as Edinburgh followed Glasgow Warriors and an understrength Ulster in storming the once-proud fortress.

Reading too much into the first game of the season is a fool's errand, but there is a trend coming through from last season that Anthony Foley and his indigenous coaching ticket need to address.

The above quote comes from Foley's 2008 autobiography and referred to the night Sale Sharks came to Limerick as English league leaders and were driven out the gate on Sebastien Chabal's coat-tails.

The fear of letting a packed home crowd down had the then No 8 "s***ing it" and he and his team-mates played like their lives depended on it.

However, the run-of-the-mill Guinness Pro12 game just can't engender the same response, particularly when Munster are struggling to attract crowds to the venue.

Against Edinburgh, there were mitigating factors. Friday nights don't suit the non-local crowd who could stay at home and tune in on TG4, while the parading of a 25ft granny through the city streets caused traffic problems for those trying to get to the game.

Still, it was the opening night of the season but even after a long summer there was far less than the official figure of 13,428 tickets sold in attendance.

The sight of empty seats at league games has become common at Thomond in recent times and, lost amid the email furore last week, was the implementation of new initiatives to try and enhance the "customer experience" at the ground.

Chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald has spoken of the province's need to focus on the Pro12 to ensure the big European nights stay on the calendar and, while those big games have retained their allure, the crowds at league games have been largely poor. Those gates don't help when Munster are trying to keep pace with the big-spending French clubs in the transfer market.

"We want to have more people here," Fitzgerald said. "Gate income is a large portion of your income, so it's a big variable if you don't know what's actually going to happen from week to week.

"We're lucky to have a good season-ticket base, but we want people to go away having enjoyed themselves and the best way is to have good facilities and to get the best result."

It's something of a vicious circle and it all makes for a rather more welcoming venue for away teams who have become used to the place. "The real advantage for me is not so much the ground, it's the advantage of sleeping in your own bed and doing the normal things," Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons said.

"When you're away from home you lose that and all of those things disadvantage the away team. But, as time has gone on and players have gotten more used to professionalism, the grounds like the magnificent Thomond Park are less of a factor than they were in years gone by."

If the intimidation of playing in Limerick has dissipated, then the coaches and players need to step in and make their own welcome.

As Donncha O'Callaghan freely admitted, Munster had not brought the required levels of physicality needed to the table on Friday, letting their home fans down in the process.

For Foley and his all-Munster brains trust, the focus is on Treviso away this Friday, but if the season is to be a success they could do with figuring out how to turn Thomond Park back into a place they can feed off and their opponents fear.

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