Sunday 25 March 2018

Ruthless business cuts Foley off at knees

Some would say Anthony Foley is being undermined rather than underpinned by Garrett Fitzgerald's announcement yesterday Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Some would say Anthony Foley is being undermined rather than underpinned by Garrett Fitzgerald's announcement yesterday Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Garrett Fitzgerald Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

If Munster were attempting to create a euphoric sense of occasion about securing the services of one of world rugby's most renowned figures, they masked it reasonably well.

While the province had been hoping last week to make an appointment that was expected by the world and its mother - this newspaper first revealed it a fortnight ago - doing so within days of a fixture that could gravely imperil their Champions Cup existence was hardly ideal.

Pointedly, the CEO Garrett Fitzgerald, who would subsequently admit the justified speculation about his own performance, never mind that of the coaches and players he has employed, sat alone at a top table to confirm the yapping of local street canines.

Even more pointedly, Anthony Foley declined to speak after the news was officially made public, declaring that his focus remained unswervingly on trying to extricate his squad from their unseemly European qualification scramble.

And so he spoke an hour before the news was officially delivered.

Which is where, of course, Director of Rugby (DOR) Rassie Erasmus came in.

Exactly where Foley comes in remains largely uncertain, except for the fact that, as he confirmed earlier this year, he will remain committed to the extra one-year option that he exercised on his contract, having agreed with his boss that the process of appointing of a DOR would happen a year ahead of schedule.

In Fitzgerald's words, Erasmus "will be directly responsible for results on the field, he will pick the team"; that used to be Foley's gig.

Foley, to be quite fair, wasn't exactly doing the best impression of a man whose request for some hired help had been suddenly gift-wrapped and sent to his door; asked if Erasmus, as had been reported, had met him and his staff, the response was brusque.

"That's all lies," he said, as we wondered whether he was half-joking or not. It seemed not. "It is unbelievable lies. He wasn't in."

Of the appointment of a man he has never met and of whose appointment he played no role in, Foley added, presumably in grave tribute, "I think it's quick. I think the Professional Game Board have done a good job in getting someone in place as quickly as they did. That's it."

Slightly more composed, he went on. "I'm fine. I'm put out by the fact that we have a s***-or-get-off-the-pot game against Edinburgh on Friday night and I'm talking about something that is going to happen in July.

"In fairness to Garrett and all the people involved in it, they haven't imposed anything on us in terms of we have to do this, that or the other thing. We have been allowed get on with our jobs and that is the way we have been.

"Trust me, the lad coming in, hopefully he's brilliant, comes in and we have a great time together. You only have a great time if you win. It is important for us to make sure we're in position that we can play European Cup rugby next year under the new regime.

"I am working with people the whole time. We weren't the greatest people in the world when we got to the final of the Pro12, we are not the worst people in the world at the moment."


Bad enough, though, for his own role to be severely downplayed while, to lose one member of his backroom staff might seem unfortunate, but three?

Foley remains a head coach but, with two confirmed staff departing - Mick O'Driscoll and Ian Costello - and a third (Brian Walsh) likely to follow, Foley's head coaching role next season will not, by any stretch of imagination, be the same. Some would say Foley is being undermined rather than being underpinned.

"We did this in consultation with Anthony," said Fitzgerald. "I am sure it's a challenge for him. He has got a great rugby brain. He has got a rugby coaching ability that has been complimented by everyone that has worked with him.

"There were some challenges that came across the desk, especially when results are going against you. You become the focus of a lot more attention. As in accepting Andy Farrell to come in, and he worked very closely with him.

"I would think if you fellas would like to think he is undermined you could think he is. But from the discussions I have had with him, and they have been long, honest and straight, you cannot get that perception. He could have that himself, but I don't think so."

And so the romantic concept of an all-Munster coaching ticket has now been ripped to shreds; South African accents will thicken the air next season and this has been a regrettable blow to the prestige of indigenous coaches.

"I don't use the term a 'source of regret' from it," says Fitzgerald, whose own position will come under severe scrutiny should his decision-making result in an absence from the top flight of European rugby next term.

"I don't think there's any room in professional sport for romanticism or romantics. This is a ruthless business and a very difficult business, a cut-throat business. You've just got to do what's best when you see what's available at any particular time."

Foley may still have a future beyond his one-year contract extension.

"There is no questions whatsoever about his rugby knowledge, his coaching ability, the strength of his game and everything like that," said Fitzgerald. "He would be better than most available, than most in the country."

Except if that were truly accurate, Fitzgerald wouldn't be announcing - pedantic nomenclature aside - what is effectively Foley's replacement. The only reason Munster Rugby are here is because of results or, rather, the lack of them, and the answer to how successful the new head coach of the old head coach can become remains devastatingly simple.

"Results. Isn't that the hope for everyone? No, look, he has a different opinion, comes from a different way of doing it.

"He comes from a High Performance Unit within South Africa. He has played, worked at the highest level, so other than that I'd say ye have more information on those sheets of paper in front of ye than I do."

As to how the pair may work together, he was still quite vague. "We'll see," he said, sparingly. Hardly, one would have thought, the seeds being sowed for a beautiful friendship. Needs must, however, and Munster's now is of the desperate variety.

Irish Independent

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