Thursday 18 January 2018

Tony Ward: After such trauma, a new Thomond flame has been lit

Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In all the tributes paid to Anthony Foley, there was one use of the word 'great' that really captured my attention. It was used by Axel's former skipper and mentor with Shannon and Munster, Mick Galwey, when describing the celebration of Anthony's life in St Flannan's church in Killaloe as one of attending "a great funeral".

A strange choice given the context and yet in that simple adjective, 'Gaillimh' got it spot on.

Anthony's heroics on the pitch are well recorded but in delivering the most remarkable eulogy to her husband with such loving dignity and courage, Olive Foley took 'in the moment heroism' to another level and put the seal on what was truly a 'great' celebration of this extraordinary rugby player's life.

I feel privileged to have been present for this remarkable send-off. Any funeral we attend gives us food for thought, an opportunity to pause, leave that fast lane, however temporarily, and reflect.

Many things went through my mind in Killaloe on Friday, but given that I was surrounded by the current Munster squad, foremost was the recurring question as to how these lads could possibly go out and play the following day.

Well, they did and how. What we witnessed was a Munster performance on the European stage from the halcyon days.

In fact, given the circumstances - and I felt for Keith Earls - for Munster to perform in the manner they did given the quality of the opposition when down a man for three-quarters of the contest reignited a fire that hasn't been burning for some time on rugby days like this.

To a man, all those wearing red were heroic - and I include the 16th man in this. If ever the crowd lifted a team that was a man down, it was the Munster faithful on this massive occasion.

It's important, as Rassie Erasmus alluded to in the aftermath, that life moves on, however slowly. It may take many small steps initially but certainly the first of those steps was taken at Thomond on Saturday.


Maybe I'm being overly simplistic, but the early impression was that a focus on individual performance feeding into the collective, thereby leaving passion and emotion to look after themselves.

Earls' tackle did warrant red, yet it was difficult for everyone not to feel some sympathy in that solitary moment of over-exuberant recklessness.

With Munster matching desire with delivery, it was mission impossible for Glasgow. They did fail to show, as Gregor Townsend respectfully suggested, but in reality they weren't allowed to.

Right from the off Munster did the simple things well. Central to that was the arrival of Tyler Bleyendaal as a game manager of substance. Having been a distant second to Johnny Sexton in the Aviva a fortnight earlier, here was a transformed out-half running the show.

After scoring that all-important opening try - a brilliantly angled run allied to deceptive pace and strength - he produced a masterclass in string-pulling.

The watching Ronan O'Gara cannot but have been impressed. The Kiwi, finally making his mark after a nightmare run of injuries, also showed O'Gara-esque courage from the kicking tee with inspirational precision.

Mention too of Ian Keatley and the manner in which he came on to complete the deal when nailing the final conversion, from the touchline. It was that type of divine-inspired day.

But this five-try, five-star performance was built on defence, with Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell leading the way. Bear in mind it was just past the hour mark when Glasgow succeeded in getting the ball to the wing.

The Munster midfield was unrecognisable from the Aviva last time out, with Scannell in particular showing the type of creative footwork this team so badly needs.

CJ Stander was also magnificent at the base of the scrum.

But this was a day when every single player in red produced the warrior-like performance essential to the loaded occasion.

Dave Kilcoyne and John Ryan were unforgiving in the scrum and like a pair of rampaging bulls in the loose, while Donnacha Ryan and the now influential Billy Holland (very much in the mould of dad Jerry) just got down and got dirty. These two, in the most understated but effective way, epitomised the burning desire to honour their fallen coach.

Whether it will herald the start of a new chapter in Munster's illustrious history only time will tell but I suspect that on the back of the most tragic but inspirational week in the lead-in to any game, a new flame has been lit.

And with that flame should come the belief that it is within this group's power to create their own special place in Munster rugby folklore.

A full house, five tries, no bonus conceded. . . I'm not sure head coach Anthony Foley could have asked for more.

Irish Independent

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