Match after match last season, Anthony Foley looked around his beloved Thomond Park and squirmed in embarrassment.
The stadium meant everything to him. It was where his father Brendan had played his part in Munster’s famous victory over the All Blacks in 1978 and led Shannon to Munster Cup glory.
Once he himself came on the scene, he picked up silverware there in the cause of St Munchins, Shannon and Munster.
So you can easily imagine his distress last year when the Munster team he coached slumped from one dismal performance to another at the famous venue with the consequent departure of some of the game’s most loyal and devoted supporters.
Less than 6,000 turned up at the 26,000 capacity stadium on a few occasions. And that hurt him deeply, so much so that when asked this week: “What do you hope for most from the coming season, he replied unhesitatingly: “Not to lose any games at home.”
Not to win the European Cup or the Guinness PRO12. Just go out and work hard and perform the basics and everything else will fall into place. Before all that can happen, of course, everyone will want to know how Foley gets on under a new stewardship that has seen his absolute authority usurped by the new director of rugby, former Springbok Rassie Erasmus.
“A few of my responsibilities have changed,” he admits. “Rassie’s view is long term, mine is short term. Basically, I am preparing for the games coming up, looking at the opposition, making sure that the tactics we’ve set out are adhered to and within all that I’ll look after the line-out and the breakdown.
“It’s all completely different for me. The biggest change is the one centre in UL. The volume of work you get done, the constant interaction. When you talk to people over a phone, it’s not the same as meeting them in a room one on one. Spending less time on the road and less time wasted, we’ll only see the benefits of it in performances over the next period of time and hopefully they will be positive.”
Foley retains the title of “head coach” although he is now second in the pecking order behind Erasmus. While his pride may have taken a bit of a battering, perhaps the new arrangement relieves him of the kind of pressure he faced last season.
“It all depends on the kind of pressure it is,” he responds. “At times you lean on people a lot as sounding boards. We have huge experience around the group right now ... Jacques (Nienaber defence coach) is coming off a series win against Ireland, Rassie has been working with the South African Union, they’re coming from places with a lot of experience and a high level of rugby.
“It’s great to have people like that around Munster. We’re all learning and getting better. There are definitely changes and tweaks. And they make sense. It’s about winning rugby matches, you can play any type of rugby you want but if you’re not playing a brand that will win you games and win your supporters back, it becomes a self-defeating policy.”
Foley was quickly back to the importance of getting the fans back to Thomond Park.
“The big losses were to Leicester and Clermont in Europe, to Leinster and Connacht back to back in the league before Christmas and even though we still had opportunities later in the season to get into the top four, those losses at Thomond Park cost us dearly. There needs to be a focus on getting people back into the stadium and make it as intimidating a venue as it can be.
“I played for Munster against Leinster in Dooradoyle in front of 300 people and by the end of the following season we were over in Twickenham with 30,000 Munster supporters there so it can happen over a short period of time.
“I popped over to Old Trafford last year to watch Man United play Sunderland. They weren’t playing that well but the stadium was full. It’s not the team you support, it’s the club you should support. The team on the pitch will ebb and flow because that’s the nature of sport. No team has ever been succesful decade on decade. The club has the history and that’s the passion you should have.”
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