Last Friday’s rousing defeat of the Maori All Blacks, a first defeat on tour for the tourists from New Zealand since 2003, was further proof the Munster players are not wallowing in self-pity at the loss of their head coach on October 16, but dedicating themselves to honouring Axel’s legacy with some firebrand rugby and total commitment.
Since Foley died, Munster have won three games from three, trouncing Glasgow the following Saturday, blanking high-flying PRO12 rivals Ospreys and then cowing a Maori side packed with future New Zealand Test stars.
It was stirring stuff in Limerick last Friday as a sell-out 25,600 reciprocated the passion their heroes were generating with a spine- tingling atmosphere that not only inspired the Munster players but also stirred director of rugby Rassie Erasmus to hyperbole about the healing power of his new neighbours.
“I’m a South African but after the last 16 weeks I think my heart is turning Irish,” Erasmus said after the 24-17 win. “The people here are special. We went through a tough time with our head coach passing away. I have learned a lot about Irish culture and I think it is showing on the field with how people stick together..”
Tommy O’Donnell senses it also. He captained the side for the first time having switched from openside to blindside flanker, and heralded his players’ attitude at the end of a week which had seen Ireland defeat world champions New Zealand 40-29 in Chicago to score a first victory over the All Blacks in 111 years.
In the rain at Thomond Park, Munster had replicated the effort and intensity of Joe Schmidt’s side to outscore the Maori by four tries to two, the wet and windy conditions seeing a lot of loose ball that O’Donnell’s side always seemed to get to first.
“What’s just incredible was the belief out of everyone,” O’Donnell said. “The Irish proved last week if you are going to beat New Zealand teams you have to outscore them you can’t just outlast them. We didn’t go out to score three hacked on tries. But we definitely went out to put pressure on their skills, you know, with the weather forecast.
“They still scored two good tries. But, I think, it was a real Munster victory, wasn’t it? Hard work and effort, every breaking ball we just pounced on it. Munster fans want to see effort. In the last two games that’s what they have seen from Munster players, battered and bruised, clawing for the win.”
It bodes well, for in a side shorn of its nine-man Irish international contingent, missing its rising but rested fly-half star Tyler Bleyendaal and featuring five academy players, including debutant forwards Sean O’Connor and John Foley,
Munster were worth every point . They mastered the conditions, dominated the set-piece and breakdown and kept the opposition scoreless in the second-half for the third game in a row. Against a Maori side which showed its attacking potency with two super first-half tries from wings James Lowe and Ambrose Curtis, that was no mean feat.
“The guys are taking their chances and not being flustered about the occasion, which is nice,” Erasmus said, “because I’m telling you, apart from the honour of playing it’s intimidating playing against a Maori team with those players.”
The motivation for this renaissance? Perhaps it was driven by the likes of man of the match Robin Copeland or centre Rory Scannell, overlooked in the last round of Ireland squad selections by Schmidt, or Sweetnam, released from the Carton House camp to play for his province rather than earn his Test debut against Canada.
“I don’t think it’s something to do with not being selected for Ireland,” Erasmus said.
“I think it’s something to do with wanting to perform for Munster. We can’t talk past the fact that when Axel passed away a few weeks back we had decided (before that) we just needed a certain way we wanted to play, you know, what he did, we want to prove on the field and I think that’s what’s driving us at this stage.
“There’s so many worse things that can happen than just losing a match. Losing is not the end of the world but trying to perform in front of your crowd is an honour. It shouldn’t put extra pressure on you. It’s living the dream.
“So, not one of those guys were bitter... I just think it’s guys enjoying their rugby and I’m proud, the way they performed as individuals.”
Munster won’t play again until their PRO12 campaign resumes against Treviso at Thomond Park on November 26 although they could be without prop James Cronin, whose return from a two-week suspension against the Maori was curtailed by a back muscle issue which, Erasmus said “doesn’t look too good”.
Yet Saturday saw the returns from injury of new signing Sam Arnold and academy fly-half Bill Johnston in Garryowen’s 43-38 AIL 1A win over St Mary’s.