Monday 23 April 2018

'It's the week that we remember Axel passing away' - Munster prepare for emotional return to Racing

The Munster team during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby coach Anthony Foley
The Munster team during a minute's silence in memory of the late Munster Rugby coach Anthony Foley
David Kelly

David Kelly

Munster will retrace achingly familiar steps throughout this week but must do without the footprints of the one person who perhaps knew them more intimately than any other.

Since Anthony Foley's death last October, this fixture's immediate irrelevance in those grief-filled times was, at some stage, always going to be followed by the inevitability that they must return one day.

This Saturday marks that time and, for director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, captain Peter O'Mahony and the rest of the squad, the relationship they have forged with each other in the last three months will serve as an almost automatic bond this week.

"It's not just an unspoken thing, it's a constant thing," says Erasmus. "It's different from every person to every manager, from medical staff to supporters - everyone had a different relationship to Axel.

Rassie Erasmus and captain Peter O’Mahony will try to channel emotions in the right direction this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Rassie Erasmus and captain Peter O’Mahony will try to channel emotions in the right direction this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"So we need to support one another to try to handle it on the best basis for you on an individual level, and then collectively, as a team, we know what we are trying to do since that day.

"We're very much aligned with what we are trying to do on and off the field. So we will help each other to try to normalise it as much as possible."

Only one defeat, and that a last-gasp loss in their only European away fixture to Leicester Tigers, since that fateful weekend vividly illustrate the bond of which Erasmus speaks so eloquently.

The South African, a stranger to these shores and these people less than 12 months ago, has proved pivotal in enabling the squad's well-being on and off the field, a balancing act that he has negotiated with decorous ease and humility.

His efforts to ease everyone through the fug of trauma will itself make it so much easier for them to cope with the emotional stress this week.

"It's more difficult because of the fact there are three European games in a row and we have just had a five-day turnaround between our interprovincial games so, tactically, we have to play our cards right in terms of keeping our guys fit for three European games," he says.

Munster's Peter O'Mahony. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Peter O'Mahony. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"Emotionally, it's the week that we remember Axel passing away. That will be a challenge for us. But we have had so many weird weeks in the past where we have been sitting down on a Sunday wondering how we were going to tackle the next week.

"It started with the week of the funeral and all the deep discussion about whether we would or would not play.

"So we have had to go on with everything and that is what we will keep on doing, we will try not to do anything different this week and prepare as normal for a Saturday-Saturday build-up.

"We decided long ago that there are certain things we do in the team environment that we will do to commemorate him and there are also certain rugby targets in terms of the way we play, the way we talk at video and training sessions.

"So we always try to incorporate that in everything we do. Obviously, that will be amplified this week but we will try to channel the emotions in the right directions."

Munster have changed the way they play as much as the way they feel. They had been searching for a template but they had been guilty, particularly for much of last season, of trying to do too much too soon.

Foley and Erasmus had been anxious to see if the adjustments they'd made after a disappointing defeat in Leinster could work in Paris; it bore a heavy South African accent but Foley's influence in rucks and mauls has also been sustained.

"It has changed a bit," asserts Erasmus. "We made some adjustments after that Aviva game when we weren't in the game the last 20 minutes.

"We had the sit-down, myself and Axel and the guys, and we talked about a few things that we had to change. We were planning to implement them that week and then the game was cancelled.

"Since then we have developed into a team with. . . I wouldn't say it is the best game-plan, a world-class game-plan but it is a game-plan everybody believes in and understands.

"We won't change that but the game-plan from then to now has changed and it will always evolve as long as the players believe in it. It won't be a massive shift from last week to this week."

Munster's approach will not differ. However, last season's beaten finalists Racing 92, who were also preparing to begin the campaign with a clean slate, now face this fixture with a 0-3 record and their campaign already at an end.

"I have my mind wandering a bit on that," admits Erasmus. "If you look at their squad depth and obviously their budget, as well as the stature of their club and where they finished last year in both competitions, they could field a great team.

"And you wouldn't know if they filled a second team whether or not those guys aren't actually better. They may be younger but are potentially as good. It will still be a massive challenge.

"We can only control how well we train and play ."

In that sense, his team are thriving on substance now, unlike the raw emotion that feverishly infected them against Glasgow when they belatedly began their European adventure.

But the undercurrents are always there.

"His office is next to mine," says Erasmus. "I see it daily. It is not something that comes and goes, it is constantly there.

"You have to see it as honour, something you can contribute, something you can remember him by.

"It's easy and that is the way we will handle it. The players see so many serious things in life and sometimes you make rugby one of those. And it doesn't have to be. It can be such a thing that you just enjoy it and be honoured to do it.

"As long as we, as coaches and managers, show that and tell them, 'Listen, it doesn't matter if you make a mistake on the rugby pitch, it is not the end of the world. There are much worse things that happen'.

"And as long as we tell them that, and show that, and do that as coaches and management, players will react to that and hopefully that is something that is currently helping them."

Irish Independent

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