Saturday’s epic events could be start of new era for Munster

Anthony Foley’s legacy began by reuniting team and supporters at Thomond Park

The Munster squad stand for a minute’s silence for  Anthony Foley before Saturday’s stirring victory over Glasgow. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The Munster squad stand for a minute’s silence for Anthony Foley before Saturday’s stirring victory over Glasgow. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

So that was the week that was. Some week too, and some celebration of the life and rugby times of an extraordinary man and truly iconic figure of the game. Anthony Foley will never be forgotten and it is to be hoped that last Saturday’s epic events at Thomond Park – one of the most unforgettable of Irish sporting occasions – will constitute the beginning of his legacy.

You’d hope too that Olive, Tony and Dan, along with Brendan, Sheila, Rosie and Orla, took some comfort from the huge outpouring of shared grief for their loss. But from Sunday and certainly yesterday, life moves on and that’s when the loss is felt most starkly and acutely. That is when their extended family, friends, neighbours and Munster will be needed most.

After Saturday’s game, Rassie Erasmus revealed that they would like Foley’s boys to continue coming into the home dressing-room after Munster games, depending on how at ease their family is with this.

As for Munster, and everything they represent, Foley’s legacy began by reuniting team and supporters last Saturday. Thomond Park’s first full house since the Clermont game in December 2014 reconnected the counties of Munster with their team, not least from Cork, where the disconnect has not been helped by the squad moving en bloc to their new centre in the University of Limerick. Saturday reminded them and us how Munster supporters carved themselves a reputation as the best supporters in Europe.

Of course, the rawness of last Saturday’s emotions can never be replicated, whatever about the unwavering mental focus to produce a performance as Foley would have coached and wanted from the Munster squad.

It will hardly be replicated for every home game in the Pro12, but it would be a failed legacy if the Munster supporters don’t at least pack Thomond Park to the rafters for their remaining home games in Europe.

The bottom line is that rugby, like all sports, remains a results game. Nothing engenders good will and strong support more than the kind of bonus-point win that Munster delivered against Glasgow.

Come December, that it will be Leicester, with whom Munster have such a rich European history as erstwhile heavyweights of the competition, should also help. Were Munster to win again, and still be in the running for qualification come the final round of pool matches – when at home to Racing and Ronan O’Gara – then another full house should be guaranteed.

Qualifying will remain a tall order. Not only will Munster almost certainly need to win all of their home games for the first time in three seasons, but most probably will require at least one win, and maybe two, on the road away to Leicester, Racing or Glasgow. Looking across the five pools, the odds appear against two teams emerging from Pool One.

But the building blocks are there. John Ryan’s conversion to a specialist tighthead and an extended run in the starting team has helped deliver Munster’s strongest scrum in some time. With Peter O’Mahony fit again as another point of reference in the lineout, their maul is potent once more too.

They remain dependent on key individuals such as CJ Stander and, no less than Ireland, Conor Murray. Following on from the enforced retirement of Johnny Holland, having Tyler Bleyendaal finally free of injuries after his horrendously unlucky first two seasons is a major boost. Foley was a huge admirer of Bleyendaal’s skills set, and on Saturday he gave his finest performance for the province yet, running the show and easing the load on Murray. The composure he showed from the off, his ability to take the ball to the line and bring others into play, along with his unerring goal-kicking no matter the angle, hinted at a benchmark performance from the Kiwi. On Sunday, he went to the Foley family home and gave them his man of the match award.

The faith which both Erasmus and Foley have shown in Rory Scannell also looked fully vindicated in his creative and assured display on his second game back from injury. Similarly, with his work permit issues resolved, Jaco Taute looks a real find, as does Darren Sweetman. All in all, Saturday’s display gave more reason than for some time in believing that Munster have a team truly capable of competing in a shark-infested pool such as this.

Their squad depth should also be strengthened by the arrival of hooker Rhys Marshall from the Chiefs and, on a three-month deal, prop Thomas du Toit from the Sharks.

Still standing

After a tumultuous week, that three of the Irish teams top their pools possibly gives a slightly flattering appearance, but at least all four provinces are still standing, albeit just about in Ulster’s case. Aside from Paddy Jackson holding his nerve, Ulster assuredly wouldn’t be were it not for the acquisition of Charles Piutau.

Connacht sit proudly atop their pool, and the value of acquiring Cian Kelleher and latterly Stacey Ili was highlighted by their combined haul of five tries in Zebre. They have come a long way in four weeks, albeit they will still need to beat Wasps or, failing that, Toulouse away on the final weekend to progress.

Topping Pool Four leaves Leinster in bonus territory considering their plight with 20 minutes to go in Montpellier, although similarly not only do they need to win their remaining home games, but also need to arrest a run of six winless European games on the road by winning away to Northampton next time out and/or Castres away in their final game.

But as Foley was wont to say, you can’t win the European Cup in October, but you can lose it. They’re still standing. gthornley@irishtimes.com

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