‘We put together a performance purely for Axel’
Anthony Foley’s sons join players on the pitch after emotional win over Glasgow
Utterly unforgettable. True to their word, Munster produced a performance in fitting memory of Anthony Foley and, as a result, although they avoided saying amongst themselves they would also win this game for Foley, win it they did and in some style.
This was also the type of performance which did Foley proud. It was very Munsteresque. Based on forward dominance of their scrum and their lineout mauling, Munster carried into contact, cleared out accurately for the most part and patiently suffocated a relatively impatient Glasgow, who too often and too quickly went for the big play.
After a truly powerful, spine-tingling occasion - which off the top of the head only the 2007 dissection of England at Croke Park is comparable - director of rugby Rassie Erasmus reflected on an awful, draining, distressing and emotional week.
“I think the tough part about it was the small things. You get into the bus to the field and Axel sits there. You get into the changing-room and Axel sits there. All the little things that remind you of that, and then you get to the field and the way that Irish people and Munster people do things, is very personal and with so much emotion.”
“I am relieved that the guys handled it like that and we put together a performance purely for Axel. That’s what the performance was about, and I’m very happy with that.”
Nor did they seek to avoid mention of Foley’s name. Far from it. “We actually mentioned his name. We can’t win for Axel, but we can play the way Axel wanted us to play and in the way he coached. We knew exactly how he wanted us to play, so we mentioned that.
“We said it last night, this morning and we even said it at half-time again. The game was about him or we would have tried to cancel the game, and postpone it to another time, but we wanted to have this opportunity. I think we tried to front up. Although that’s maybe the tougher route, I think that’s the more realistic route.”
For the first time in years, Thomond Park was packed again, like the halcyon days of yore. Now Erasmus knows what Munster’s citadel is all about.
“In a situation like this, around a tragic thing like Axel’s death, you can never try and find a silver lining. I don’t know if that is disrespectful but knowing Axel like I know, it probably wouldn’t be disrespectful.
“It was a privilege to experience what we experienced here. It’s unreal. I can include all Irish people in that. It’s not just Munster. It’s unreal how personal, how emotional and how people do things here. And then you get to the park, it’s just even more exaggerated and it’s tough to understand how one would want to be in another place than here after experiencing that. For me personally it was just a great honour.”
That the Foley boys, Tony and Dan, were in the dressing-room was actually a normal occurrence. “He would always have them in the dressing-room after games,” said Erasmus. “He used to bring them in, so as long as we can do that and it’s comfortable for them and their family we would like to do that.”
The decision to conduct their post-match rendition of Stand Up and Fight on the middle of the pitch rather than the dressing-room was “spontaneous” according to Erasmus. “We didn’t plan on that, it was just the way things panned out which I think is really awesome.”
Stand up and Fight
This, he said, was unknown territory. “We were not sure how, myself would react, or the players, or the referee or even the opposition. And even in the warm-up I wasn’t sure what we were going to get out of this. But we had a good chat last night and again this morning about what we were going to try and achieve, not even result-wise, but more the way we wanted to play.
“So I was expecting that that would come through but not in such a mature way. For the players to do it so quickly after something tragic, and what happened to Axel, I am relieved.”
As for the game itself, Erasmus said: “To play with 14 men, I think the guys reacted on defence and obviously set phases weren’t influenced with us still having eight forwards. The plan was that we still have eight forwards so we chose to dominate with scrums and with mauling and lineouts and those kind of things. Technically that is the thing that pulled us through and gave us some momentum because if you’re down a winger you’ll probably struggle in attack and the aerial game and the kicking game.
“So I think Peter (O’Mahony) and the whole team and the decisions made around playing with 14 men were pretty spot on and that’s why we got some of our tries, which is satisfying.”
CJ Stander reckoned that “boys became men” as the squad rose to the challenge and demands of an extraordinary day. “It was a very, very tough week. I’m very proud of how the boys stood up. I think a lot of boys turned into men this week. Our thoughts are all the time with Olive, Dan and Tony. After it happened on Sunday, no one really had words, we just sat together and we knew it was going to be a difficult week.
“Rassie said before the match, ‘Boys, if we’re going to do justice to Axel we have to play the way he wants us to play.’ I’ve sat here week in and week out and told you that we made mistakes, did this and need to fix that. Today, we performed the way Axel wanted us to three years ago, since we started.
“I think we did him proud today. He’s not a man that really smiled a lot, he’s probably up there saying, ‘Boys, they (Glasgow) scored a mauling try.’ I think he’s proud today, smiling down on the boys. My heart is with Olive, Dan and Tony. It was great to see them on the pitch.”
When Tony and Dan Foley joined in the huddle for Stand Up and Fight, Stander admits that’s when the enormity of the day hit him.
“It was massive. I think everyone deals with emotion differently during the week and I wasn’t really emotional, crying, but I felt the loss inside me. When I saw the two boys walking onto the pitch, that’s when I broke down. The next few days and next few years are going to be tough for them and they’re going to miss a big man in their life, their father. I feel so sorry for their loss. I knew he meant the world to them, he meant the world to me. It was great to see them on the pitch today.”
Erasmus had asked the players to play the way Foley wanted them to play, and Stander admitted: “I think Axel really got frustrated with us because he taught us everything he wanted and we didn’t really go out there and enjoy ourselves and play the way he wanted us to play.
“I think it’s only the start now of what we can do. We’re our own team now and he’s always going to be in our minds and the back of our hearts. I think we have to kick on from here now. Today, there were no excuses and I think that’s the thing we need to push on for the next year, especially.”
“A few boys turned into men this week. It’s the first time this happened to me and for them, their first time going through this in their professional careers. They showed what they can do and where they can be.
“I think Sweets (Darren Sweetman) is a world-class player and he’s only going to get better. It’s great to have him in the squad, the way he handles himself and how hard he works for the team. He wants to be the first in that jersey every week.
“I think that’s a legacy that Axel left behind, that there’s no individuals in this team. You have to step up and that you’re just borrowing the jersey for the match. I think Darren has a great future in front of him.”
That O’Mahony has returned to lead the side was particularly important for this week of all weeks, and has assuredly eased some of the load on Stander himself.
“He steps in and he takes a big load off me and Billy’s shoulders. He’s a great leader and he’s a leader of men. When he talks, you listen. Everyone can concentrate on their game and he brings that physicality and also that leadership into the team. It’s great to have him back. I enjoy it in the back row, it gives me more time on the ball, so he does all the hard work. It’s great to have him back.”
As for their part in this occasion and game, which was always going to be very difficult for them, the Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend admitted “we didn’t turn up.”
“It’s disappointing that only one team turned up today,” said Townsend, who had attended Foley’s hauntingly moving funeral in Killaloe on Friday, and was generous in defeat. “I have to say, it was a great occasion and a great tribute for Anthony Foley. The way the whole build up to the game was. The way Munster played as well.”
“I’m obviously very disappointed from the perspective of how my team played and also the way that we didn’t show the reaction in the second half that was required. Munster started very well and they never stopped. Maybe neutrals or some of our players thought we would have an advantage playing against 14 but it never looked like we were playing against 14.
“It seemed like we were playing against 15 and 25,000 today. Munster were better in every aspect of the game. The more important aspect of any performance is effort and they put in much more effort than we did. It didn’t look like us out there at times.
“It’s Champions Cup and we know ever game is difficult. This was really difficult today but we’ve missed not picking up any points today and we’ve given one of our rivals five points. It will be tougher now.”