It’s still difficult to come to terms with the surreal events in Paris last weekend. Munster trips to the French capital haven’t been the most pleasant of experiences in recent times.
Last season’s initial sojourn was postponed in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist atrocities that brought the city to its knees.
When Munster’s Champions Cup game against Stade Francais was rescheduled a few weeks later, the heavily armed army presence on the streets of the St Michel district where we were staying offered an eerie backdrop to a city that so often resonates history, colour, and beauty. On that occasion a large black cloud hung over the entire city.
Munster’s performance against Stade Francais the following day left a lot to be desired but when compared to what transpired back in Paris last weekend, it only served to highlight once again that sport is there to be enjoyed and not endured.
The painful defeats only serve to make the victories more special.
Standing outside the Stade Yves Du Manoir last Sunday, as confirmation of Anthony Foley’s tragic passing was confirmed, the world appeared to stand still.
Suddenly you were transported back in time, to conversations with the man, the last meeting, the last salute. So many things left unsaid.
For everyone associated with Munster rugby, moving on from the shocking passing of their iconic leader will prove difficult and challenging.
For his immediate family and large circle of friends, a deep black hole dominates their horizons. They now deserve time and space to grieve.
It’s inevitable, however, that the Munster rugby community will want to honour Axel’s passing and that Thomond Park has become the epicentre for people to express their feelings. The flags and scarves that were instinctively draped over the railings at the entrance to Racing 92’s home ground when the horrific news broke now extends across the channel all the way to Limerick.
As I write, it appears that Saturday’s Champions Cup game against Glasgow Warriors will likely go ahead.
In some ways, it will be comforting to bring 25,000 people together in what is sure to be an emotional and highly charged occasion.
Quite how the Munster squad can even contemplate getting their heads around the prospect of playing that game is anyone’s guess.
At least the first steps on the road to recovery were taken yesterday when the squad came together for the first time since the terrible news was broken to them in their team room on Sunday morning.
With the exception of the recent signings from overseas, there isn’t a player in the current squad whose career wasn’t shaped in some way by Foley. All of the forwards in the squad will have been nurtured and guided by his influence since the day they were handed an academy contract and, for some, that influence extends over a decade as he transitioned from captain to the coaching set up.
As a consequence, it will be very difficult and emotionally challenging to somehow attempt to focus their attention on combating a very strong Glasgow outfit who had a five-try, bonus-point demolition of Leicester Tigers in Scotstoun on Friday night.
Rassie Erasmus faces a massive challenge over the weeks and months ahead, even more so given it is nigh impossible for him, as a South African, to fully comprehend the situation he now finds himself in.
It is crucial that the entire Munster organisation get behind and support him in dealing with a set of circumstances that extends way beyond the brief of a rugby coach.
If the Munster No. 10 shirt will forever be linked to Ronan O’Gara after his heroics for the province, for me, when I see the No. 8 jersey, I immediately associate it with Anthony Foley.
As a mark of respect, I think it would prove apt if it was stood down for the remainder of the season.
One suspects that Anthony, more than anyone, would want this Munster squad to pick up the pieces and continue the fight as they have always done, with dignity, respect and the fervent passion and commitment that he brought to the cause ever since his first appearance in a red shirt for Munster schools all those years ago.
Back on the field of play, if Saracens’ impressive win at the Stade Felix Mayol — the first time Toulon lost a Champions Cup pool game there — sent a clear signal of intent that they have every intention of retaining their European crown, the performance and result of the weekend was Connacht’s superb win over former multiple champions Toulouse in Galway.
This Connacht team captivates the imagination in an entirely different way to that which had everyone, Leinster diehards excepted, willing Munster on to Heineken Cup glory in the noughties.
Back then it didn’t matter how Munster played, winning was all that counted. Closing out the final against Toulouse in 2008 with a five-minute sequence of pick and jams that subsequently contributed to a tweak in the laws of the game didn’t matter an iota.
With Connacht, it’s different. They play a brand of rugby that we were told Irish sides are incapable of producing. How Pat Lam has consigned that theory to the bin.
The other thing so endearing about Connacht is their imperfections. They make life so difficult for themselves at times. Why not take that penalty kick at goal on the stroke of half-time last weekend and reduce the deficit to seven points?
But that is simply not the Connacht way.
On Saturday, they beat Toulouse despite themselves. On four separate occasions they chose to kick to the corner to set up an attacking lineout platform. Inexcusably, they lost possession, on their own throw, on all four. Yet they still prevailed.
Now, if they can sort out the basic elements of their game, then anything is possible.
What differentiates them at present is the unwavering confidence and belief in their ability to retain possession through multiple phases and stretch opposition defences.
That wondrous try by the under-appreciated Niyi Adeolokun in the opening half was up there with anything the current New Zealand side are capable of delivering.
Ironically, given the issues Connacht had on their own throw, the origins of that wonder score stemmed from an attacking Toulouse lineout deep in the home side’s 22 which was pilfered expertly by the highly impressive Ultan Dillane.
How Munster would love to welcome him home. Despite receiving possession against the odds within metres of their own line, Connacht’s first instinct was to attack.
Bundee Aki had two touches and two key decisions to make in the play and executed perfectly on both occasions, resulting in a try for Adeolokun 80 metres from where the move started. For the likes of Toulouse captain and veteran centre Florian Fritz, his thoughts must have harped back to a time when his Stade Toulousain side would produce similar moments of magic at will, every time that side took to the field.
By and large, those days are gone as yet another French side attempts to bludgeon their way to victory but nothing should detract from the magnitude of this Connacht win. After that horrific start to their Guinness Pro12 title defence — even Zebre might have beaten them but for the intervention of a monsoon in Parma — nobody could have blamed them if they tightened up their game in search of a win.
To his credit, Lam was never going to allow that happen and successive, bonus point, wins over Edinburgh and Ulster proved the perfect launch pad for Europe. After that positive start and with Zebre next up in their pool back in Northern Italy on Sunday, Connacht can now set their sights on bagging a perfect, 10-point, return from the opening two games of their campaign.
How quickly things change.
Leinster did everything that was expected of them in also securing the bonus point win over Castres. The big plus for Leo Cullen here was that they did so without the guiding hand of Johnny Sexton on the tiller.
To deliver that win with a fledgling half-back pairing of 20-year-old Joey Carbery and the comparatively inexperienced Luke McGrath augurs well for the future.
McGrath has bided his time in the Leinster set-up behind the now departed Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss and despite the presence of new signing Jamison Gibson-Park straight out of a Super Rugby-winning campaign with the Wellington Hurricanes, he has been entrusted with a starting role.
A few seasons ago the outstanding former Wales and Lions scrum-half Robert Jones pulled me aside having watched the Irish U20 side play their Welsh hosts. He described McGrath as the most exciting scrum-half he had seen in years and predicted a bright future.
It has taken a while but my former Lions colleague looks like he may well be proved right.
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