Munster entering key period with Penney’s extended goodbye and Foley’s succession
Foley in tricky situation but winning, starting on Saturday, would make things easier
Obviously, you’re a professional and you try to do your job the way that’s best for the team and the club. But you’re a human being too and it’s very difficult to ignore the fact that your new boss is in the building all the time even though he isn’t the boss yet. Even though his job hasn’t changed yet, the way you see him has.
Assistant coaches are traditionally a bit more relaxed, a bit more approachable. They don’t have the same responsibility as the head coach so they’re not under the same pressure. That means they have a bit more time for you if you need to tease something out with them. That would have been part of Foley’s role at Munster over the last few years.
But if you’re a player at Munster now, it’s bound to be hard to look at Foley and not see something more than an assistant coach. In just a few months he is the man who will be picking the team and deciding on contracts. By being named as the next head coach, he is a different figure in the eyes of the players. The dynamic changes automatically.
It happened before at Munster when Tony McGahan moved up to the top job. McGahan was someone I would have been pretty pally with off the pitch when he was an assistant coach to Declan Kidney. He’d have been one of the guys I’d have talked away to about non-rugby stuff. He lived around the corner from me and I’d often call to his house or have pint with him.
But when he became head coach, that relationship changed. It had to. There was nothing ever said by either of us but we both understood that it had to become a different dynamic between us. As a player, you can’t be knocking about with the head coach. The same goes vice-versa.
For one thing, his decisions from here on out directly affect you as a player and even as a professional. Give it six or nine months and he’s going to be sitting in a room with the money men at some stage weighing up whether or not you’re worth another year or two on your contract.
If you’re both there long enough, it might eventually be that he has to let you go. That’s the toughest side of the head coach’s job and it isn’t fair on him or you if any bit of that decision is influenced by the fact that you’re a regular at his house. In fact, it might do you more harm than good. At the very least, it complicates things unnecessarily.
The other side of it is that all of a sudden, he is responsible for a whole squad of players. He can’t have two players going for the same position and one of them thinking that the other guy is getting the nod because he’s friendly with the coach. You can’t have anyone thinking there’s favouritism.
So the dynamic changed when McGahan became head coach and the same will happen for Axel now. He has to get that relationship right with these players now – and again, it’s an odd situation because he has to park all his plans and ideas for another 10 weeks. He can’t be walking around acting as the head coach before he actually has the job. It’s a delicate balance and it all has to be done at a time when important games are being played and plans are being made.