Ciarán Murphy: Munster rugby has found its way again
Tragic death of coach Anthony Foley is the moment season changed for the province
CJ Standers wears the number 24 jersey in tribute to the late Anthony Foley for the province’s European Champions Cup match against Glasgow at Thomond Park in October. Photograph: Inpho
Tyrone players and manager Mickey Harte observe a minute’s silence in memory of Cormac McAnallen before a National League match in 2004. Photograph: Inpho
Munster’s devastating 38-0 victory over Leicester at the weekend was a spectacular display of controlled aggression, skill and style. It was the first time Leicester had been held scoreless in 13 years, and it was more than a defeat, it was a true humbling for one of English rugby’s biggest clubs.
The back-to-back, home and away fixtures in rounds three and four of the Champions Cup, or Heineken Cup as it was known and is still called by many, have always been a delicious bit of fixture making, allowing as they do for heavy defeats, personal grudges and all-round animosity to be replayed within six or seven days of each other, so a lot could change between now and next Monday. But right now, Munster rugby has found its way again, and the public are responding.
It is of course, not too difficult to pinpoint the moment where it all changed – the tragic death of their head coach Anthony Foley on the morning of the first game in the pool against Racing Metro 92 of Paris in October.
It was perhaps the most shocking death to happen in Irish sport since the morning in March 2004 when we woke to the news that Cormac McAnallen had died suddenly. The shock of that day doesn’t dissipate over the intervening years; an All Star at the time of his death, a key part of the reigning All-Ireland champions, but, more than that, an exemplar of youth and vigour and humility in his county’s first truly great team.
When Tyrone eventually returned to action 12 days later in a league game in Castlebar, his team-mates stood for a minute’s silence for their friend, and then handed Mayo a nine-point defeat.
Moving onMickey HarteThe Irish Times
They went through the rest of their fixtures unbeaten, and finished top of the pile in Division One, before losing a league semi-final to Galway after a replay. But they couldn’t sustain that inspiration – they lost to Donegal in the Ulster semi-final, and in the end lost their All-Ireland title to Mayo at the quarter-final stage.
By the time of that Mayo defeat in August, they had begun to look beaten down by the year. Retaining the All-Ireland championship is tough, but surely no team has faced a tougher job than Tyrone did in 2004. Grief is a multi-faceted thing, and I’m sure it was dealt with differently by every Tyrone panellist that year, but in the end the team fell short. It almost felt proper – that sport isn’t about miracles, about “doing it” for someone. Sometimes the only thing left to do is grieve.
The Munster v Glasgow game in Europe, six days after Foley’s death was perhaps the most extraordinary sporting occasion of the year in Ireland. But somehow since the emotional roller-coaster of that day, Munster have kept it up. They’ve had six more wins in a row, and they seem inspired by the challenge of commemorating Foley with their play. They are currently top of the Pro12 table, and top of their Champions Cup pool, with a game in hand on two of their opponents.
Tyrone had climbed their sporting Everest the year before Cormac’s death. Munster didn’t succeed with Foley as their head coach, or at least not to the extent that they wanted. There’s a sense of unfinished business to his work with them, a project they can complete now that he’s gone. It’s a big ask, but the momentum they’ve gathered since that day in Thomond against Glasgow could carry them all the way through the season.
There’s no doubt a dip in Munster’s fortunes will come, and maybe this week in Welford Road they’ll suffer the Leicester backlash – Leicester have never lost back-to-back games in rounds three and four in Europe. But they can already be proud of what they’ve done for Foley’s family and friends since his death. And when the dip does come, they can either be inspired by the memory of Foley’s life to go again, or be hit by the impact of a dear friend being taken from them . . . quite frankly, they’ve earned that right.