Sport Rugby

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Ties that bind Munster rugby can help with healing process

Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has his work cut out this week as he and his players try to pick up the pieces following the death of Anthony Foley. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has his work cut out this week as he and his players try to pick up the pieces following the death of Anthony Foley. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Grief offers no instruction. There are no directions. No process whereby a team can gather themselves beneath the posts after the concession of a try and decide where to go from here.

If grief has a playbook, all the pages have been violently ripped out.

While so often it can seem like the easiest thing to focus on the next ball, what does one do when it becomes so difficult to merely take the next step?

The world will continue to turn this week, the sun will rise and fall and the world's media will, as it inevitably must, turn its gaze away to other troubles and strifes.

We all must get on with our lives but how can those within Munster Rugby manage with theirs following the sudden death of Anthony Foley?

There is a handy narrative that suggests filling the famous old ground in honour of a fallen comrade, a visceral crowd willing an emotional side towards success in tribute to an absent 16th man, can act as a vital spur to some sense of rehabilitation and recovery.


The public will naturally desire the opportunity to throatily roar their heroes with a cathartic response to the community's collective shock but it is almost impossible to know whether their heroes themselves will be quite ready to do so.

Just as it is difficult to conceive of yesterday's training session, the first without their great friend and colleague; or, as Ian Keatley so eloquently spoke of this week, the team meeting without the familiar Foley laptop and its screensaver which featured the young children, it is easy to see how the players might wonder how they can eke out the determination to carry on as normal.

A return to normality is probably impossible so the players must navigate a route around and through that. The coaching staff can help but they too may also need assistance.

The support services provided by the players' body, IRUPA, and the extensive counselling networks they can deploy, will be so vital in the coming days and weeks, as will Munster Rugby's own personal networks of professional experts, whether psychologists, family or priests.

Yet each individual will have his or her own way of coping with stress at this time. The route of prayer may work for some but others may have an anger that rails against such spiritual acceptance of something that they perceive as being too cruel to absorb as being merely God's design.

Others may have the necessary tools to self-heal which may not be readily apparent to other staff members who are less emotionally developed; this may be simply a matter where age and experience allows some, perhaps those with a close family of their own, to forge an innate strength to negotiate the wilderness.

Everyone is different. Munster Rugby is a collective but one formed by a variety of different characters and individuals who come together as one, towards one place but not always from the same place. Some can block it out. Others, it may threaten to consume whole.

It may help - then again it may not, because no tragedy is ever the same - that Munster have some relevant experience when Conrad O'Sullivan, a talented young centre, died ten years ago in different circumstances, but no less tragic than that.

The team's next game was also, as it happens, in Europe, and Denis Leamy, a close friend of the young player, was one of those who found it virtually impossible to face the prospect of playing a match so soon in the aftermath.

Indeed, he subsequently admitted that he was not mentally right for the game which took place ten days afterwards.

Those of us who remember the minute's silence were arrested by the sight of grown men in tears just moments before the game was due to start; Donncha O'Callaghan recalled how it was the toughest time he ever had to endure.

"That match wasn't the important thing that week. To be honest, I was glad when it was over." Poignantly, Foley had done much to ensure his squad managed the day.

And won.


Nothing can provide preparation for such a moment; the instinct takes over and almost suspends emotion. Friends will lean on each other and provide space or support where necessary.

It is trite but there is some strength in unity.

Ulster experienced the same issues when Nevin Spence died; the squad's thoughts mostly remained private but we knew subsequently that there was a desire within the squad to recommit to their professional life in honour of their departed colleague.

Again, this seems a vapid thought but this is what life teaches all of us who have loved and lost so deeply.

Everyone is willing. A community that grieves together cleaves together too.

So violently pulled apart, we can only hope they can all, somehow, pull together.

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