Friday 17 January 2020

Neil Francis: Munster's epic Thomond Park display was much more than a game of rugby

Munster’s Rory Scannell beats the tackle of Ali Price on the way to scoring his side’s fifth try against Glasgow. Picture by Brendan Moran. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Munster’s Rory Scannell beats the tackle of Ali Price on the way to scoring his side’s fifth try against Glasgow. Picture by Brendan Moran. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It had been a while since I had travelled to the Cathedral. I had taken my seat early and idleness brings reflection - and all I could keep thinking of was - what would he be doing now? Anthony would always talk to me after a match but in the lead-up to any match the game face would be on.

He wasn't pathologically grumpy but you would never guess it from the facial expressions and the body language. If the eyes are the window to your soul - there was never any clue. I hated playing poker with him on tour, he was harder to read than Finnegan's Wake. The players understood his state of mind before a game - there would be no mood contagion. Whether as a player or as a coach he always managed to convey his message effectively. 

One of the reasons Munster were as successful as they were when he was on the team was because of the way he went about himself on a rugby field. I have always felt that No 8 is a glamour position, particularly in the modern game. You get your hands on the ball a huge amount of the time. You get to stay out in the wide channels. You can hang back and cover behind the line. You can do as much showboating as you like. Anthony scored an incredible 39 tries for Munster throughout his career, most of them the difference-makers in tight games.

Yet when you look at the nuts and bolts of his performances he was the sludge disposal engineer, the dustbin man and the animal husbandry guy with the long latex gloves. He rolled up his sleeves, he cleaned up other people's shit and he lapped up physical punishment. He excelled at the non-obvious and unspectacular. He was selfless and willingly gave of himself when it came to doing the nitty gritty.

He had a PhD in graft and craft - so you might forgive him if he wasn't smiling like a fairy godmother throwing sparkles as she went. Every game he played was for real. Anthony didn't play friendlies. It was the way he was. Nobody who gave his best ever regretted it. He just did not smile on the pitch that often.

My relationship with him was solid. We were two very different people who happened to play rugby. How do you reconcile a relationship with someone where one has an ego and one patently does not? You bridge that chasm with relentless and merciless slagging. Maybe I enjoyed being slagged. Anthony was always high quality and close to the bone, and any respite was just to draw breath. I enjoyed him.

We had a few tricky moments as well. In the lead-up to the Ireland versus France quarter-final in the '95 World Cup in South Africa, Anthony did not make the match-day squad and went on the beer. He sat down with me for breakfast two days before the game. I asked him where he had been the night before and he was about to tell me when he realised that I didn't really care where he was, but there were still two training sessions before the big game and anything could have happened. Would he have been able to slot in?

"Axel, I'm disappointed in you. When are you going to grow up?"

For the rest of the competition he kept his head down and out of my way. This was my last World Cup; he would have plenty more.

Years later I arranged to play golf with Keith Wood and Anthony in Doonbeg on a Sunday during the summer. In the end I had to get home to relieve the babysitter and couldn't play.

The two boys pitched up and I walked onto the first tee after breakfast. What started with some gentle barracking as Woody put his ball on the tee ended up as a push-and-shove match between the two of us, and then ended up as a disgraceful wrestling match on the grass in front of some bewildered American tourists.

Security were being called and after having my face rubbed in the dirt, order was restored by a pair of strong hands.

"Frano, I'm disappointed in you - when are you going to grow up?"

This was the end - I was being reprimanded by this kid I had given out to a dozen years previously. A stern look, order restored, and Woody addresses the ball and slices his drive into the next parish. Anthony had a laugh somewhere between a guffaw and shoulder-rolling titter. You could have heard him at the far end of the golf course.

He came over and high-fived me and the fighting nearly started again. Games between the two of them were fiercely competitive, I might not have survived the 18. They played golf the way they played rugby: Woody lighting the course up with his brilliance and Anthony thinking his way around the links.

It would have been what he was doing in the warm-up now, getting his players to think their way through the game.

Talking about thinking, I would say Glasgow did an awful lot of thinking before yesterday's game. This was not going to be a match, it would be a tragedian opera where they would be bit players. Glasgow had the option to cancel but, true to the honour of the game we play, they chose to come and compete and also to pay homage. This was so much more than a game of rugby.

A few years ago I bumped into Martin Corry, who had captained England in that memorable international Test match in Croke Park in 2007. England were fully aware of what that match meant to the Irish people and had good knowledge as to the scale of emotion the match would bring when they set foot on Croke Park.

Corry reckoned that if England had 50 players on the field that day and they had paid the referee, the result would still have been the same. It takes the English to properly recognise how much Anthony Foley meant to the rugby world, and the term they used, "a proper rugby bloke", was never more apt.

Going into the match I met numerous Munster supporters. Nobody knew what to expect. There is no textbook for an occasion like this but nobody needed to worry as the integrity of the occasion was a testament to the high regard that everybody held their head coach in, but it was a Glasgow supporter who expressed the most telling sentiment.

I met him leaving the ground with his girlfriend and asked him why he had travelled. He explained that he had made the booking during the summer after the fixture list had been published. He was not to know what would happen in Paris last week and he was philosophical about coming over to watch his team get thumped, but the occasion was enriching, and he said: "Where else in the world would you experience something like that?"

As the teams took to the pitch the only thing I could think of that was missing was a Commander in Chief's riderless horse and poignant memories of Kennedy's funeral in Washington came flooding back.

As the sides lined up for the minute's silence, I reflected on the number of people, many of them nameless, faceless blazers for whom I have had to stand up and observe a minute's silence, and I thought 'Finally - a minute's silence for somebody who was truly worth a minute's silence'. It was raw emotion.

For Glasgow, the difficulties began immediately and yet they played like a team who looked like they were trying not to look like a sheep in sheep's clothing.

They made their tackles, they hit their rucks hard and they were marvellously competitive all over the park, but they got blown away by a team that had practically zero match preparation in the week leading up to this game. Yet Munster were only driven by pure emotion and this was their best performance in a long, long time.

I had written a few weeks ago that I thought that they would do something this season and their mid five looked very good yesterday, with Bleyendaal looking the player he should have become years ago.

Munster's pack was very good too, and they gave a very fluid performance which mapped them out as contenders. The day could have gone horribly wrong for them, however. Murray looked like he was very seriously injured in the first minute and was down for quite a while before he made a good recovery.

Earls was given a red card for a tip tackle on Fraser Brown. On a day of bravery which was preceded by a week which called on real courage, Jerome Garces showed real moral fabric to dismiss Earls. In front of a full house that were expecting the script to be observed and knowing the reaction that he would receive, the Frenchman stuck to his guns and sent Earls off for a dangerous tackle - he had no other option and it was the correct decision.

Munster, down to 14 men, made light of it and were never in any danger of losing this game. Glasgow chased for a losing bonus point as befits a team that are arguably the best in the Pro12, and a team that also has serious expectations of qualifying from this group, but Munster closed out the game and the match was over. The Munster squad went out into the centre of the pitch and, in a giant circle, sang 'Stand Up and Fight'. That was it, the sheer finality of it all. The King is dead, long live the King.

We look to the words of Abraham Lincoln, another Commander in Chief whose life ended prematurely. In the month leading up to his death, he said: "In the end it's not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years."

The appreciation of the crowd was a reflection on everybody's knowledge of just what Anthony Foley had accomplished - but sadly no more.

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