Saturday 24 February 2018

Munster and Foley finally see some light

Munster 31 Scarlets 15

Munster's Rory Scannell scores his side's fifth try against the Scarlets despite the efforts of Morgan Allen. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Munster's Rory Scannell scores his side's fifth try against the Scarlets despite the efforts of Morgan Allen. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Munster's CJ Stander makes a break during the match against Scarlets at Thomond Park. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Johnny Holland kicks a conversion at Thomond Park. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Munster's Dave O'Callaghan keeps his eyes on the action iat the scrum. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Francis Saili is tackled by John Barclay, left, and James Davies, during the match against the Scarlets. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

When the relief came, it was blessed.

Without it, a year of ignominy would have been compounded by the prospect of more, in Europe's second tier, next term, with all the sporting and financial handicaps that would imply.

"I didn't want to be that captain," said CJ Stander, who has spent most of the season doing a pretty good impression of not being that captain at all. "It would have been a tough, tough year."

This has been a tough, tough year for Munster. "You know all that," Stander reminds us.

The Munster players and squad convened together for the final time in the dressing-room to sing their anthem 'Stand Up and Fight' at least knowing that doing so for the final fortnight ensured that, at the very least, the foundations remain in place for the province to rehabilitate.


Those foundations are stronger than most people might think; primarily, the group of greenhorn players who have excelled this season, under unusual, different pressures, demonstrating immense promise for what may come from them and their team.

The chief influence will be the injection of enthusiasm and freshness wrought by the incoming director of rugby Johan Erasmus, a stunning coup and an appointment brought forward a year.

Mainly that was due to Anthony Foley's stark admission earlier this year, viz. "If I don't feel I can get results there is no point in being here."

Well, he is still here and despite the flak he has taken from former players and many supporters, there is still an argument that retaining him has some merits, provided he can be allowed to do what he can, rather than trying to do what he cannot.

"I'd like to be coaching here in 20 years' time," he says. "I don't have a desire to go anywhere else."

Foley said sport has no conscience and perhaps he is right but it does have a soul and, for all that Munster have been forced to rip up their coaching template, tossing everything into the garbage can would, perhaps, be folly.

"He has been and always will be the heartbeat of Munster," said the outstanding captain Stander; if anything, his was a plea for the coach to not only remain for a year, as he has pledged, but to make a difference.

Foley, who has carried the burden as much as anyone this season, was more relieved than most to have avoided the tainted tag of being the man who, ten years after reaching the summit of Europe as a player, was the coach who led them out of it.

There may be a pocket of punters who would rather run him out of the place but, surely, the argument for ensuring that there remains an integral, indigenous voice in the dressing room is a strong one.

In coaching terms, Foley is as inexperienced as many of the players who have broken through to the team in his two seasons at the helm and, for all that his discomfort was plain to see when Rob Penney was here, he has changed, too.

"They are two unbelievable guys and two great coaches and they will know what is needed for this team and its players," says Stander, who knows both Erasmus and Foley.

"They will work together for sure, you don't even have to think about it. Especially Axel, he is the heartbeat of Munster and he will work with anybody if it is good for the Munster jersey."

It would help if Foley and Erasmus spoke sooner, rather than later, to clarify the former's precise role and for the South African to finalise how many of his own men he would like to bring to Ireland.

For now, Foley's devotion to Munster is absolute. "I just want to coach to be honest with you and that's hopefully what will happen," says Foley, quite clearly lightened by the heavy load being removed from his broad shoulders.

"Until I've sat down and pressed flesh with him you can't really do anything. It's not about me putting words or pressures on others. It's about me sitting down and having a proper conversation with the man and seeing where we go. That's important."

Three months after his lowest ebb, at least he has emerged, blinking, into some sense of light.

"I was part of the Rotorua Five, taken off in an international match after 20 minutes," he smiles at the recall of a distant memory with an Irish development side.

"You have your peaks and troughs and it's the same in coaching and, no doubt, in every aspect of life.


"When we had great wins we didn't start beating our chests. When we have losses we don't get into the depths of despair because it doesn't help anyone."

It's as close as he'll get to being personal, you guess.

For all his faults as a head coach, Foley has paid the ultimate professional price; the former forward own attitude will influence his rehabilitation.

He still has a role to play and, indirectly, Stander outlines it.

"He brings out the best in you. He is a direct guy, he knows how to work with his players. He tells you what he needs from you, what he expects from you.

"From a forwards' perspective, he wants physicality and he wants you to come out and give your all for that Munster jersey, just as he did when he played."

Munster - S Zebo (I Keatley 64); A Conway (R O'Mahony 25-31, blood; 38), F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray (D Williams 58); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 56), N Scannell (M Sherry 4), S Archer (J Ryan 71), D Foley (R Copeland 62), B Holland, D O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell (J O'Donoghue 9), CJ Stander (capt).

Scarlets - L Williams; G Owen, S Hughes, H Parkes, S Evans (A Thomas 72); S Shingler, A Davies (G Davies 53); R Evans (D Evans 76), K Owens (capt), P Edwards (R Jones 68), J Ball, D Bulbring (M Allen 55), L Rawlins (T Price 64), J Davies, J Barclay.

Ref - N Owens (Wales).

Irish Independent

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