WHEN he retired from playing in 2008, Anthony Foley thought it might be wise to step away from rugby for a while.
The four-year-old who used to shoehorn himself into the Shannon dressing room to observe pre-match rituals had gone on to play 62 times for Ireland and 201 times for Munster; rugby simply consumed him.
He thought about taking a year out from the game but Munster had a coaching job on the table; Foley had big ideas that needed a platform, and that was that.
If he thought he was busy then, the 40-year-old must barely know himself these days. Having taken on a variety of roles within the Munster and Irish setups, he was overlooked for the head coach role at his home province in 2012, but on July 1 this year, finally ascended to the top of the tree.
“It’s been an interesting transition,” he says with a knowing smile. “It’s definitely a full-on job, 24/7, everything I expected it to be.”
Foley heads up an all-Munster coaching staff — Ian Costello (skills, defence, kicking), Brian Walsh (attack), Jerry Flannery (scrum) and Mick O’Driscoll (technical advisor) are his lieutenants — that is heavy on knowledge and passion but light on top-level coaching experience.
It’ll be a collaborative effort from them to help Munster try and restore past glories, such as the 2006 and 2008 Heineken Cups which Foley won as a player.
“Why bring in people with the knowledge and understanding that we have into a group if you’re not going to listen to it?” is his response, when asked whether his style would be more dictator or facilitator.
“It’s about collating information, constantly communicating with your staff and making sure you get everyone’s opinion and listen to them. Then when you make decisions, they are based on more knowledge than just going off your own bat.
“It’s about using the unit I have around me. In the professional game we might not have the most experience in the world, but as rugby coaches and rugby people in Munster, we have a lot of knowledge and belief in what we’re doing. I listen to that, trust in it, and try to make informed decisions and choices for our squad.”
The quintet was assembled in a variety of ways; Flannery and O’Driscoll soldiered in the trenches alongside Foley and he followed their respective forays into coaching with Arsenal FC and Cork Constitution with interest before asking them to get involved.
Costello was “already in the system” having had roles with Munster’s U20, A and Academy setups. Munster interviewed for the attack coach role and former Con head honcho Walsh was the best candidate.
“I’m happy with what I have. Right now everything is good, but I’m sure that will change when we start playing matches — we’ll find out how people perform under pressure.”
Foley could hardly have foreseen his first major challenge to be the controversy over a management report that was accidentally distributed to the squad’s players. But speaking prior to that incident, he outlined what the new setup will bring to the table. “Some of what went well” from the oft-maligned playing style peddled by his predecessor Rob Penney — under whom he served as forwards coach — will be kept, but other things have already begun to change.
Costello told this newspaper that consistency is a big buzzword for Munster this season and Foley’s focus has been on training the side to perform their core skills well under pressure — only with those solid foundations, goes the theory, can Munster add the passion and fervour they are renowned for to the mix.
“We have a number of drills we can manipulate for different things,” explains Foley when asked about how his on-pitch sessions are delivered. “We don’t want fellas learning the drills — where to stand or what to do — we want them learning the skills we’re trying to promote within the session.
“We’ve really tightened up what we do and it’s given a flow to our training sessions, allowing us to train with more intensity and less chat. We as coaches get our chat done before and after, very little on the pitch unless we’re not on the money. The other time we’d chat is when something has gone well and we want to get a feeling of why it has gone well. We ask the players if they understand what they’re doing. The proof will be when the season starts, we won’t know until then [how it has worked].”
MUNSTER have also changed the days they train on. Meetings are shorter and “more to the point”. Each coach will be required to spend a few days away from their nearest training centre — for Foley that’s three days in Limerick and two in Cork on a given week.
Aligned with the desire to maximise the players’ skill levels is Foley’s thoughts on his goals as a coach. There’s no talk of Rugby Champions Cups or Guinness Pro 12 titles, instead the themes are mastery of the game and fulfilment of potential.
“We have a great bunch of players who have been unlucky in a couple of campaigns. In becoming better, you become more competitive and harder to beat,” he explains.
“People will hand you KPIs (key performance indicators) and tell you to do this or that, but if you’re focused on one aspect, you’re blind to other things.
“If we’ve been as good as we can be, I’ll be very happy at the end of the season. With that comes prizes. What prizes they are, I couldn’t tell you — I couldn’t tell you when I was a player either, but if we as players and coach get close to our maximum potential, we won’t be far away.”
When he was appointed earlier this year, Foley and his wife Olive were overwhelmed by the chorus of good wishes that came their way. But Foley knows there are also great expectations among fans who want to see Munster lift a first bit of silverware since 2011 too.
“When Munster go out on the pitch, we expect to win. So do the other provinces. But in Munster, because it means so much to us in terms of where want to go, our internal expectations will be high.
“We have a lot of high achievers in the group who will want to be at the top end of the game. Because you operate in a cocoon, you don’t really feel any outside pressure but in terms of the public, I hope they put bums on seats in Thomond Park, in Waterford and across Europe — we won’t let them down.”
Meanwhile Argentina hooker Eusebio Guinazu has signed for Munster on a four-month deal to offset Mike Sherry’s long-term shoulder injury.
The 32-year-old joins the province after two seasons at Bath, following stints at Biarritz, Toulouse and the Stormers. The 36-cap front-rower will ease Munster’s hooker shortage as Sherry recovers from shoulder surgery.
“We need to hit the ground running this season and to do this we need to have a full complement of players available,” said Foley yesterday.
“We have short-term setbacks with Niall Scannell rehabbing from a wrist injury and Damien Varley managing a foot injury, but with Sherry ruled out until next year, it is great that we can call on the services of an experienced, versatile player such as Eusebio.”
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