Saturday 18 January 2020

Tony Ward: Munster face unenviable task to channel desire while keeping emotion in check

Tributes are paid to Munster head coach Anthony Foley outside Thomond Park at the Shannon RFC clubhouse gate. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tributes are paid to Munster head coach Anthony Foley outside Thomond Park at the Shannon RFC clubhouse gate. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Thomond Park has hosted some extraordinary occasions since the first game was played there in 1934. Not for nothing was the official history of the great Limerick ground titled Where Miracles Happen.

Today at Thomond Park there will be no miracle but for the capacity attendance, there will be a very special atmosphere in tribute to a very special player.

Much has been said and written about Anthony Foley over the last six days, in circumstances in which words don't come easy.

Munster captain Peter O'Mahony probably summed it up best when saying: "We've been around each other (in Limerick) which I found made it easier than being away from the squad. The more time we spend together the better."

I think the strength in numbers theory will apply to Thomond today when the Red Army comes as one to pay its respects to one of the iconic figures in the history of Munster rugby.

There are mixed views as to whether today's Champions Cup game should take place at all. I'm caught somewhere in between on this one.

Anthony Foley. Photo: Sportsfile
Anthony Foley. Photo: Sportsfile

I accept the decision to go ahead with the game against Glasgow, which Champions Cup organisers EPCR say was made following in-depth consultation with the Munster management.

Given the personnel involved at the Munster end, I can only assume that it was based 100pc on the feelings of the Foley family.

Today is about so much more than the points on offer and fixture completion.

This is the final send-off to Axel on the high altar where he was loved for a generation by every fan who poured through the Thomond Park gates.

Whether supporting his father Brendan for Shannon and Munster or lining out himself in Parish black and blue or Munster red, Thomond was Anthony Foley's home from home since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.

O'Mahony's sentiments struck a chord, and only add to my admiration for the Munster skipper, who has just returned from a year long injury.

He is clearly a dressing-room leader, the sort of man who just commands respect.

I had the good fortune to play with some of those figures - Shay Deering and Ciaran Fitzgerald spring to mind.

Watching Foley, Paul O'Connell and O'Mahony from outside the sanctity of the changing-room, you could tell the effect they had on their team-mates.

The common thread is heart on sleeve. Axel was not a man of many words but when he spoke, those on board listened. These are guys who demand of others only what they give of themselves.

In the past few days we watched the current Munster skipper break down under the media spotlight. Far from the era of old where "big boys" we were told "don't cry". Real 'fir laidir', real men, real leaders do just that.

I can't even begin to imagine how O'Mahony will handle today.

It might be the day to borrow from the great man, for as O'Mahony says: "I was lucky - I grew up following him around the place, even though he didn't know it, so to be allowed talk to him and be in his presence was a dream come true."

That message will carry the players; there is little need for dressing-room hype, as the combined determination of fans and players to honour this prematurely fallen hero will carry the day. Put simply, this one's for Axel.

And spare a thought for Gregor Townsend and the Glasgow Warriors: imagine how difficult this occasion will be for them.

They will be battling not just fired-up two-time champions on their own sacred patch, but a tidal wave of emotion too.

I don't envy any player involved today his task.

Maybe playing the game is the right thing to do, and life will go on, beginning today in the environment the Foley family have known most of their lives.

Once they are happy to go ahead with the fixture, that is the bottom line for me.

Spare a thought too for Rassie Erasmus and the Munster management, particularly Jerry Flannery, who was especially close to Axel.

Erasmus said in relation to training this week: "It was tough not to see him (Foley) standing there, not to go and talk to him before and afterwards. That's the tough part.

"But we know Anthony would want us to get on with it and that is what's driving us now."

I sincerely hope the players on both sides can lose themselves in the competitiveness of the occasion once kick-off comes.

Amazingly it is the first time these sides have been drawn together in European competition.

The Warriors hit the ground running against Leicester, racking up a hugely impressive five tries to one victory at Scotstoun.


Both are in the top six of the Pro 12 with Glasgow just ahead on bonus points. That will count for little this afternoon in a game set to test emotions to the limit.

For Munster, the task is in channelling desire but keeping emotion in check. I envy them not.

For Glasgow, this is a day when they will fully feel the impact of the infamous 16th man. And yet I am sure Stuart Hogg, Johnny Gray, Henry Pyrgos and the rest will get the welcome they deserve

But on this unique occasion I'll leave the last words to the skipper: "My first game that he coached me with Munster was an U-20 match in Thomond. We won 3-0, ironically enough, and that suited Axel as good as if we'd beaten them by 60 or 70 points.

"He was a man who wanted any Munster jersey to win at any cost."

To achieve that today, no expense will be spared.

Irish Independent

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