THE BIG INTERVIEW: You never stop mourning. But we set a target each week

Given the trauma of last October in Paris, nobody thought this would turn into a season Munster Rugby doesn’t want to end. Out of tragedy came a more resolute set-up, led by chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald. Today, they can lift their first silverware in six years and continue the red renaissance, writes Simon Lewis
THE BIG INTERVIEW: You never stop mourning. But we set a target each week

Given the trauma of last October in Paris, nobody thought this would turn into a season Munster Rugby doesn’t want to end. Out of tragedy came a more resolute set-up, led by chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald. Today, they can lift their first silverware in six years and continue the red renaissance

There can be no hiding place when you are at the top of any business and Munster Rugby is no exception. For all the romantic notions attached to rugby in the province, and let’s face it, no-one does romance better, there is still a bottom line on which chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald must sign off. Regardless of circumstances.

Even in this most extraordinary of campaigns, as the sudden passing of head coach Anthony Foley at the age of 42 last October underscored, those closest to Axel in rugby terms have had to continue with the business of professional sport.

As Munster CEO since 1999 and a coach with the province before that, Fitzgerald certainly fits that category, his relationship with Foley spanning his life as a player, captain, coach and head coach. On that dark day in Paris last autumn he too lost a friend yet there has been no time to pause and reflect, nor will there be until the season comes to an end when the whistle blows on this evening’s Guinness PRO12 final.

Foley is never far away during a lengthy conversation with Fitzgerald at Munster’s head office in Cork this week, as the players continued their preparations for tonight’s Pro12 league decider against Scarlets at their shiny new High Performance Centre on the University of Limerick’s campus.

That this relatively young team, which had struggled for the previous two seasons, has gone from strength to strength since the loss of their head coach, has been a testament to the regard in which they held Axel. With director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, they have been honouring him with every performance, losing just three times in the 26 matches they have played in his absence, exceeding expectations by reaching a Champions Cup semi-final and topping the PRO12 league table en route to today’s final at Aviva Stadium.

Fitzgerald believes that sort of resilience would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the culture being fostered within Munster Rugby.

“It would be difficult,” he agreed. “In any organisation the people are key. It’s not always the most talented people, you need good people, good management structures, good coaches, good leaders. I think our younger players are growing into that. A lot of them in the previous two seasons got hit by something that was maybe a little bit ahead of where they were but I think they’ve grown into the whole thing.

“Ranging from our director of rugby down through our academy, down through our internal administration staff, we’ve put a big emphasis on trying to get the right people and trying to get an atmosphere where people stay. We may not be top of the league as regards remuneration but I think we’re at the pitch of what the marketplace is and we work really hard at driving a family-type atmosphere where people are respected in our organisation and I think that’s stood to us a lot this year.”

Fitzgerald may be 18 years in his current post but he has still marvelled at the way the people in his organisation have reacted to the tragedy of only seven months ago.

“The situation that arose for us in October with Axel was something you can never plan for. I was there myself on the day it happened and we’ve been lucky that there are a lot of experienced people around for a number of years like Niall (O’Donovan, team manager), who understands what’s needed at specific times. Between that and the quality of the senior players and the management and coaching team – there’s a good balance between young and old but they’re all exceptionally good people.

“What I’ve learned this year is that we’ve got a lot of very good, genuine Munster people who want Munster to do well and care for Munster and are very conscious of doing the right thing for Munster. That’s we’ve learned this year.

“That went right down through our staff in the week or two that followed that event.

“It was an unique scenario. You’re away from home in a foreign country where we’re not all communicating in the same language and it’s four hours before you’re about to play a match and this happens. I think it just means that you pull all your experience together. The first thing is forget about rugby, forget about matches. Think of family, think of the people around you.

“A lot of it happened naturally because of the quality of people around us, the amount of help and different things that came, whether it was from EPCR, the IRFU or our own organisation, there was an outpouring of grief, obviously, but also an outpouring of help and offers to help.

“So it was a matter of trying to guide it along because everyone rowed in and had something to contribute and I think that got us through the whole situation.

“Because the season has been such a whirlwind season I don’t know if anyone has had enough time to sit down and think about it for a day or two without anything else going through their head. Maybe that will happen in June.”

It seems there is going to be a big, collective exhalation when the dust settles after tonight’s match.

“Look, it’s been a great rugby season. It’s been an emotional, tiring season for people. There’s been some exceptional results in some of our games and not necessarily the big games. Two weeks after Axel died, we went to Ulster and we were 15 or 17 points down at some stage. That was probably a bigger result than the previous week against Glasgow, winning it with a drop goal by Rory Scannell near the end.

“Lots of those things stick out in your mind. We had away games in the PRO12 against Glasgow. They’re tough places to go when you’re missing some of your best fellas and for us to beat Glasgow four times in the one season, I don’t think it will happen again. They’re a side we’d have huge respect for, for their coaches and their players, so to do that I think we must have an exceptional bunch of young men and the coaches around them.

“It’s been that type of season but I don’t think people have had time to sit down and think about it. When you play 22 league games and seven games in Europe and move into knockout rugby you’re up to 30 games and I don’t think the same team has been put out any week in the season. We’ve used 54 players, there’s been a huge number of academy players who’ve got their first cap, 21 debuts across the season and things like that, it’s just been.... it’s been different, let’s put it that way.”

While the tributes to Axel continue, with Champions Cup organisers EPCR naming their European Player of the Season award in his honour earlier this month, the mourning within Munster Rugby will continue and Fitzgerald is determined to let that process take its course as naturally as possible as people grieve in their own, personal way.

“The group of people around the squad and the management are very close. They knew they had a target every week and they had to refocus all the time. There was a lot of grief for people outside our organisation who had a lot of rugby respect for Axel and that was seen internationally, which was something I hadn’t really come across before. But our players, they’ve had their own job to do and they’ve talked about and did it within the week of each match and then re- focused and moved on, so there wasn’t any definitive time where we’ve said ‘you have to stop doing this’.

“When you lose a friend at that age you never stop mourning, it’s just different degrees at different times. I know different fellas will still talk about it and do what they have to do but they know the best way they can honour his life is by winning matches and performing.”

Munster chief would love to stage Champions Cup game in Páirc

Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald:Seeks to secure the right people.

Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald:Seeks to secure the right people.

Munster Rugby would “love” to stage a European Champions Cup game at the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald has told the Irish Examiner.

The redeveloped GAA stadium will re-open this summer as a 43,000-capacity state-of-the-art sports venue with the IRFU including Páirc Uí Chaoimh as one of its proposed venues for Ireland’s 2023 Rugby World Cup bid, to be decided by World Rugby this November.

The Champions Cup is organised by EPCR, which has shown an appetite to take its games to new venues in the past, and Páirc Uí Chaoimh would meet all the criteria required by it to host a semi-final, in terms of amenities and satisfying home country advantage without being the regular home stadium of the qualifying club.

Nothing could happen without the permission of the GAA’s Central Council but with Munster Rugby providing the majority of the 52,000 crowd at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium last month for their home-country semi-final against Saracens, there would clearly be an appetite for such a game within the province.

While there are clearly many hurdles to clear for Munster’s men in red to take to the Páirc Uí Chaoimh field, not least a willingness by the IRFU to turn its back on its own Aviva Stadium and hand coffers over to the GAA, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility and CEO Fitzgerald said: “If you’re asking if the opportunity arose in the future for us to do that, we’d love to do it. But it’s not our decision and it won’t be our decision, on the availability of the stadium or the game, given that it is run by EPCR.

“If we got the opportunity to play in Pairc Ui Chaoimh we’d certainly look at it.”

Munster’s progress to the European semi-finals and tonight’s Guinness Pro12 final at the Aviva has brought big crowds back to both Thomond Park in Limerick and Cork’s Musgrave Park.

Nine sell-out games across the two venues this season has brought welcome relief following two seasons of under-achievement on the pitch and falling ticket sales which saw Munster negotiate a restructuring of its near €10m debt with the IRFU on the remainder of its €40m loan for the redevelopment of Thomond Park a decade ago.

The upturn might not yet be reflected in the accounts, however, as Fitzgerald explained.

“We’ve put a big emphasis this year on trying to grow our support base for the future, on trying to re- attach ourselves to families and young people and consequently our gate incomes weren’t as big as people might have thought.

“There have been lots of concession tickets and it’s worked really well for us.

“We see that as a long-term investment, we’ve made that our policy and that’s the way we’re going. As a consequence of that, our season-ticket income for next season is up about 25% and our supporters club membership is up by nearly 30%.

“Our economic performance this year will be better than it was last year but we did get a contribution from the IRFU towards the deficit we were facing. It’s not an overnight success.”

Erasmus a future Springbok coach

Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.

Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.

Munster fans breathed a sigh of relief when director of rugby Rassie Erasmus insisted he would see out his contract with the province and resist overtures to return to the South African RU, but chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald believes it is only a matter of time before the Springboks come calling.

Erasmus quit his SARU job as High Performance General Manager last summer to become Munster’s first director of rugby and has guided them to tonight’s Guinness PRO12 final.

His achievements this season have not gone unnoticed in his homeland and the former Springbok flanker, 42, was linked with an instant return as the national team’s fortunes have continued to slide.

Yet while he scotched that speculation last month by insisting he would stay the course of his three-year deal, Fitzgerald knows the man he appointed a year ago will remain in demand and is destined for higher office.

“I think Rassie will coach the Springboks. That’s part of his ambition and I’m sure when the chance arises we’ll have to deal with it if he’s still with us. We’ve lost our coaches to international rugby before. We lost Declan Kidney and Niall O’Donovan to Ireland and we lost Tony McGahan to Australia. We lost Jim Williams, who was an assistant coach with us as well, so it isn’t something that’s completely different.

“When a person gets a chance to coach their own national team you’ve got to respect that. ”

As a piece of recruitment, the capture of Erasmus could not have gone much better.

“He’s a really knowledgeable rugby person who has played and coached at the highest level. His ability to manage people and players has been proven, we’re basically playing with the same players, just a year or two older with experience,” the Munster CEO said.

“Rassie is just a good, honest, genuine guy with a great ability to gel people. There are no miracles involved in anything, he just works hard, as does Jacques Nienaber and they fitted in with the local people and worked together to make it a good management team.”

Fitzgerald preferred to take SARU’s interest in Erasmus as a compliment rather than a concern. “It’s something we’ve dealt with before and we’ll have to deal with it in the future, whether it’s with Rassie or someone else and in a way, it’s a positive sign to see someone wants someone that you have to coach a national team. I think it means we got the right person.”

Reds will bide time over Ryan replacement

Donnacha Ryan: Last game for Munster tonight before move to Racing 92.

Donnacha Ryan: Last game for Munster tonight before move to Racing 92.

Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald said he will be patient in finding the right replacement for the departing Donnacha Ryan.

The Ireland lock will play his 167th and final game for Munster in tonight’s Guinness PRO12 final before a summer move to Racing 92, a move prompted by an IRFU decision not to renew his central contract.

“There’s an IRFU policy on there being only a certain amount of money for national contracts. That’s decided centrally and we don’t in principle have an issue with that. It’s worked that way for the last number of years,” Fitzgerald told The Irish Examiner.

“We would have liked to have retained Donnacha. I think he’s playing his best rugby, as locks do at this age and the time in their career. But Donnacha was aware for some time he wasn’t going to be offered a national contract and when you lose a national contract it has an implication locally, puts an extra cost on you locally. Donnacha’s been fantastic for us and we did make him what we thought was our best offer within our financial budgets and obviously he made a decision, a difficult decision that I know he thought long and hard about.

“He’s at a stage in his career where I suppose he’s entitled to have a look at what’s happening on the other side. We’ve got to move on. We wish him the best of luck, Donnacha will always be a Munster person in our eyes.”

Fitzgerald is prepared to wait for the right replacement.

“We need to take our time to see what’s available,” he said. “You wait until you ... can deliver the right person. Experience has shown us over the years you’re better off sometimes to wait until you get the right person.

“There are a number of players who can play in that position and a number of younger players there so time shouldn’t dictate things. Quality is better so we should put the emphasis on getting the right person for the right thing rather than just jumping into something. But we do need another lock for next season. The menu available in professional rugby for getting the right people is very small.”

Fitzgerald was aware of the perception among supporters that the province were on the wrong end of an imbalance in the number of central contracts Munster players receive from the IRFU, with only Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls and Conor Murray being paid directly by the governing body out of a total of 14 national deals this season.

“If you go back 10 years ago other provinces thought there was an imbalance in favour of Munster. Based on what’s happening in national squads at the moment, Leinster has the greatest number of players so it’s a follow-on from that they’re likely to have the greatest number of contracts.

“I think people will always have the perception there’s an imbalance and whether we can come up with another system that’s fairer, that’s for all of us in Irish rugby to have a look at to see what’s the best way to do it. I’m sure Connacht feel that way all the time. It’s worked in our favour before and it’s working against us now. You just have to suck it up and do your best to work within the cycle and work at it and see if we can come up with another method that’s going to be fairer. There’s no obvious solution.”

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up


Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox