Anthony Foley could be forgiven for pondering the what might have-beens as he closed the book on a season of disappointment for Munster on Saturday night.
Though the terms of his redefined role under the incoming Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus have still not been clarified, the head coach will see his duties radically altered when the South African arrives in the province on July 1.
That was the price Foley paid for two years at the helm of a squad whose make-up and age profile changed just as dramatically as his job description will this summer. The knock-on effects of that rugby brain drain at Munster have been painfully played out in the form of successive failures to reach the knockout stages of the Champions Cup and this season’s sixth-place finish in the Pro12, his inexperienced side only securing top-flight European rugby for next season on the final day of the regular season with a 31-15 victory over Scarlets.
Saturday’s bonus-point win, the second in eight days, at least allowed Foley to sign off on a high and with a hint that whatever his role is in the Erasmus regime, there were glimpses in his team’s performance that the experiences of this season will stand to this developing group of players and good times may be around the corner.
So while he reviewed where it all went wrong, Foley did allow himself a note of optimism from a campaign which after January’s humiliating second-half collapse in Paris against 14-man Stade Francais had left him wondering if he had a future in his native province.
“Even at the moment you’re going back looking at losing to Connacht, Leinster and Ospreys at home. You’re nine points off top four … and then you’re going into the Scarlets game over there and you’re leading with three minutes to go and we end up losing with the last kick of the game ... We lost a losing bonus point in Cardiff and we took a quick tap up there against Leinster (and lost the game).
“There’s a lot of points that we’ve left behind and this is with a young group and that probably tells you what they’re capable of and that they’re a very good side.
“Probably next year or the year after next they will take some stopping.”
For all the strides those younger players such as Niall Scannell, Rory Scannell and Jack O’Donoghue have taken this season, Foley believes they still have plenty of learning to come in their rugby educations.
“It’s only in time you’ll see that. The club doesn’t want to be in that situation where you’re scrambling to get into Europe.You want to be dominating and making sure you’re in the knockouts and all that. These players need to understand the reasons why we’re not there and why we weren’t in the knockouts in Europe and so on.
“They also need to understand they have the ability to do it, understanding the key moments in the game and where the games can flow for you or against you.”
Foley has certainly learned plenty these past two seasons in the hotseat but the highs and lows have not come as a surprise to the former Munster and Ireland No.8.
When asked about the low point last January Foley referenced a particularly testing Ireland A tour to New Zealand in 1997 when the Irish second string was beaten handily not just by a New Zealand XV and New Zealand Maori but also by Northland, Bay of Plenty and King Country in between.
“I was part of the Rotorua Five, I was taken off in an international match after 20 minutes,” he said.
“You go through a lot of things in your career and you know in your playing career that not everything is perfect all of the time. You have your peaks and troughs and it’s the same in coaching. There’s no doubt it goes through every “When we have losses we don’t get into the depths of despair because it doesn’t help anyone.”
Foley will not ask for sympathy but he will relinquish control of this squad to Erasmus with the praise of his captain of this season CJ Stander.
“He brings out the best in you,” Stander said of Foley. “He is a direct guy, he knows how to work with his players. He tells you what he needs and what he expects from you. From a forwards’ perspective, he wants physicality and he wants you to come out and give your all for that Munster jersey, just as he did when he played.
“He has a lot of strengths but his ultimate one is just being that Munster man. He has been driving that. He has been and always will be the heartbeat of Munster.
“The two of them (Foley and Erasmus) can work together at any stage because it comes down to what is good for Munster. They are two unbelievable guys and two great coaches and they will know what is needed for this team.
“They will work together for sure, you don’t even have to think about it. Especially Axel... he will work with anybody if it is good for the Munster jersey.”
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