Anthony Foley: The pleasure and pain of leading Munster
Heineken Cup-winning captain admits recent losing streak was hugely frustrating
“I can’t really separate myself from this job. I can’t separate myself from Munster because it’s been 21 years nearly now,” says Anthony Foley. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Virtually since birth, Munster have been in Anthony Foley’s blood, whether as a boy being taken into the rarified confines of the Thomond Park home dressing-room by his dad, Brendan, or, for the last two decades, as a distinguished player, captain and assistant coach. But this is different. As head coach he carries the can.
Hence, he would have felt the pain from the recent run of five successive defeats worse than anyone. In only his second season at the helm, no one would have felt the relief of beating Ulster more than Foley. At least Munster had averted a record sixth defeat in a row on his watch.
In his column for the Irish Examiner recently, his long-time team-mate Ronan O’Gara wrote of watching Foley after the Leicester and Leinster losses. “All I could think of was a Premier League manager. It was horrible, and you can see Axel is in a horrible place emotionally.
“He is a Munster man coaching Munster. It’s all he cares about. Ever since he was a boy in short pants, all Axel wanted to do was play with Shannon and play with Munster when the standards went up. The game at Welford Road in the Champions Cup was a fascinating tussle, and 11 or 12 of the Munster boys had really good games.
“But Axel’s body language afterwards betrayed the torture he felt in defeat. It was staggering to see how upset he was. The level of hurt and pain, the sense of pressure was something, to repeat, I would normally associate with Mourinho or Van Gaal.”
You read this to Foley and he chuckles, not least as he is a Man United fan. But the smile suggests he’s thinking “you know me too well, Rog”.
“Yeah, look, it’s hard,” he admitted during the week when, no doubt with some reluctances, he granted an interview in these trying times. “There are a lot of things you can do, that are within your control; the frustration comes from the things you can’t control.
“People tell you to just worry about what you can control. There’s aspects of the game – and I see it too often – where a decision or a moment, whether it’s an official making a mistake or whether it’s us not capitalising on their mistake, it has massive consequences, and ultimately at the highest level it has consequences on the result of the game, which consequently have a result on how you feel and how you are portrayed and how your next week’s work goes and how maybe even your life is.
“It’s sad in one way that that’s anyone in any job. It’s important at times that you have a bit of separation. Unfortunately, I can’t really separate myself from this job. I can’t separate myself from Munster at times because it’s been 21 years nearly now, in and around the squad. So it’s a good chunk of my life and I want us to do well and I want us to be competing at the back end of every competition. I want us to have as many players playing international rugby as possible, though all the levels.
“That’s the drive, that’s the desire and sometimes you take it very personally, and when it’s under your watch, it’s even more frustrating.”
No less than Eric Elwood at Connacht, you wonder if it all could become too much, if there is any escape even back in Killaloe and within the warmth of his home and family.
“To be honest, it’s always been the case with the people of Ballina and Killaloe. It’s a brilliant place to have been brought up and to live, because you don’t really get a lot of abuse out there. You don’t really get a lot of people asking you questions. You go down to the lakeside for a swim or whatever, and you’re pretty much left alone.
“It’s like anything else through life, if you want to find trouble you can find trouble. But I think in the environment I was brought up, it’s a very supportive. It makes you get up on Monday morning wanting to work hard to try to rectify it, because you do understand that a lot of people want you to do well, as opposed to the minority who like to stick the knife in the back when things are down. But they’re not the people you need to worry about. It’s the people that are hurting with you. They’re the people that you need to work hard for.”
Foley was also one of the stand-out members of a golden generation who at times probably didn’t need too much coaching. With the departures of Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan, that generation has now passed. This Saturday’s team won’t feature a single member of the starting XV from the 2008 Heineken Cup final.
“Yeah, but we’ve a good bunch of players and it’s like anything, the next generation to come through are not going to be at the top level of the fellas who have departed. It’s about the opportunity for these fellas to take that mantle on and grow with it. Some will grow and will emulate people who have gone before them. Others will have it for a period of time and move on.”
Emerged from within
He cites the 2005-06 campaign, and the quality of players who emerged from within (Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy), and those who were brought in from abroad (Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki), along with a stable pack for many years.
During their golden years, Munster thrived, above all else, on a production line of players hardened by the club game, where they also developed a winning culture. That the Ulster Bank League has less relevance for the provinces was always likely to hurt Munster the most, and all the more so given the decline of their clubs, as much through socio-economic factors as anything.
“There’s no doubt that the crowds have waned. The player profile has changed within. When I went into Shannon as an 18-year-old I was looking at players like Mick Galwey, Niall O’Donovan, Pat Murray. There were men there; a great learning environment for young fellas. The problem now is if you’re 18/19 years of age going into an AIL club the fellas there are only three or four years older than you and have very little experience. It does restrict growth and a lot of the players do move to Dublin for jobs, and if they don’t see a future in the professional game, they decide to concentrate on work full-time and you can’t blame them for that either.”
Accepting that “there’s less of a connection with the club” and that “the gaps are getting wider”, Foley adds: “I think there’s too many senior clubs in Munster, in Limerick and Cork and Tipperary. We don’t have the playing population to keep the quality as high as it needs to be, and that’s the reality. We see that the teams who are dominating the AIL are in Dublin.”
The other source of replenishment from within is the schools/under-age/academy route. Here, Munster have fallen behind, with an alarming lack of players in the Irish under-age teams. For example, in last summer’s Under-20 World Cup, there wasn’t one Munster player in the team that started against New Zealand, and the only one in the other four matches was winger Stephen Fitzgerald.
These things take time, but Foley believes a corner has been turned. He points to the Munster under-19 and under-20s interpros’ success this season, their academy’s improved connection with the schools, and the increased quality of players coming through. As well as Fitzgerald, there’s the Johnsons (Bill and David), Mick Galwey’s nephew Sean McCarthy and others. A key though, would be a stronger league, and stronger top flight clubs in Munster, to help bridge that step.
Then there are overseas signings. Munster are reportedly €9 million in debt, with repayments on Thomond Park to the IRFU having been put back. They don’t have the advantages of a capital city outfit like Leinster, nor the budgetary strength of Ulster, with their Kingspan backing and part UK government-funded redevelopment of Ravenhill. They no longer seem to be in the market for the Doug Howletts and Christian Cullens of this world.
“How much in debt are Barcelona?” says Foley. “That’s not really the issue. The issue is we identify our players. We go after them. We see where we need them. We brought in Mark Chisholm, 60 caps for the Wallabies, Francis Saili, an All Black and a fella that we targeted and we got. We looked at Tyler Bleyendaal a couple of years ago, tracked him and got him. We got BJ Botha. We spent a lot of time searching for a player like CJ Stander and got him. We do appreciate we can’t get everyone we want, but in fairness we’ve gotten a good chunk of them.”
Stephen Moore? “It’s old news now to be honest. There was an approach made to Stephen and that was rejected. There was another approach made and that was rejected. One was (rejected) by the IRFU, and one was by the player.”
Then, of course, there is the increased spending power of the French and English clubs, fuelled by TV deals and private benefactors. This is a threat to all the provinces, but it has seen JJ Hanrahan depart and Simon Zebo coveted in France.
“The English and French have moved the goalposts massively, and it’s going to continue to change.”
So can Munster compete at the high end of European competition again? “We can. You need to have a small bit of fortune, you need to have it well planned, you need to have a good indigenous squad, you need to have a good environment in terms of its health. You can’t afford to ship a lot of injuries.
“We shipped a lot of injuries last year. In the last few weeks we shipped a lot, but we’re fortunate that they’re mostly short-term. And it’s about then making sure your recruitment is top-notch. It can be name players or good quality layers who bring a lot of character to the squad.”
Another positive is that Munster will finally be based in one location, namely the University of Limerick, from next season, in line with every other team pretty much in Europe.
“There’s no secret to it. You get a lot more work done in a week in one centre with everyone there, rather than what we have to try to manage at the moment.”
So, does he still enjoy it?
“Yeah, yeah. You have to be a small bit masochistic I suppose in many respects. It’s a very challenging environment. I was thinking a few weeks ago: ‘Jesus, I’d hate to be yer man Anthony Foley with the amount of abuse he’s taking,’” he admits with a chuckle.
“At times it’s like it’s happening to somebody else. You’re in an environment where you’re focused on working and solving the problems and the issues at hand. People can have an opinion and write what they want but from my point of view people aren’t fully abreast of what’s going on at times and they don’t have the full information. Sometimes you have to make decisions and sometimes your hands are tied with injuries and what you have to do to manage your team.
“It’s about managing that and your whole squad and the people around it. Because ultimately, what I’ve tried to get across to players this year is that rugby players are players, but the most important thing is that they are people. It’s about managing the person as much as anything and making sure everyone is fully abreast of what’s going on.
“They’re not kids. They need to understand that the world is a tough place and they need to be balanced in their approach towards it. And we can’t be too down when we lose. Teams will go on losing streaks. I think a lot of teams this year have lost games on the bounce, and then when you get a win you haven’t solved every problem. You still have issues, and it’s about identifying them, rectifying them and moving on.
“If we can do that, there’s a degree of satisfaction in that, but again, a referee’s decision, a TMO decision or a knock-on can make the next week happy or sad. That, unfortunately, is the reality of it. It is a tough job, but it’s very enjoyable. The highs are high, the lows are low. You try not to get too high when they’re good, and not get too low when they go against you. That’s why you surround yourself with the right people, who appreciate that as well.”