Anthony Foley allowed himself a grin or two following Munster’s defeat of Saracens, but despite back-to-back opening Champions Cup victories, the head coach will take nothing for granted as regards qualification for the knockout stages.
As encouraging as the 14-3 victory against the English Premiership powerhouse was at Thomond Park on Friday night, to send Munster to the top of Pool 1 regardless of yesterday’s clash between group rivals Clermont Auvergne and Sale Sharks, Foley has been involved in European rugby long enough to understand a winning start to a qualifying campaign can unravel quickly over the remaining four games. And with home and away matches against Clermont coming up in December’s rounds three and four, that is certainly a possibility.
So while there was time to enjoy the hard-fought win over Saracens, which also denied Mark McCall’s side a losing bonus point with his side’s best performance of the season to date, he also sounded a note of caution.
Agreeing it had been Munster’s most complete showing in the campaign, Foley said: “Against Leinster I think we were (dominant) 40 to 50 minutes, but I think we were up around 60 minutes where we were in control.
“That’s impressive on the back of a six-day turnaround and travel to come in and get their work done early in the week, stay on task through the week and then produce that at the end of it.
“So we can sit back and have a little smile because the work was done. It’s not smiling because of the win, we’re smiling because of the satisfaction the work was done during the week for these two games has come to fruition and we’ve got the eight points out of it.
“There’s still a lot of points to play for and there’s no guarantees. Clermont are a very good side in this group, Sale are still a very good side, Saracens are a different side when they play at home. We are (in a good position) on the back of two games but this is a group of six games. We’re a third of the way through it and you always want to be in a position where you’re destiny is in your own hands going into rounds five and six. You need to be in control. Traditionally, as a player and a coach within the set-up, that’s where you want to be.”
Saracens were prevented from collecting a losing bonus point thanks to a powerful second-half which kept the English league leaders scoreless and broke a 3-3 interval stalemate with a try from substitute prop Dave Kilcoyne in between a penalty and drop goal from Ian Keatley.
“We’ll find out in round six (abut the significance) but it’s important,” Foley said. “I know when we were behind against Sale, it was important to get within seven and then within three and crawl it back in and get something out of the game. We ended up getting four bonus points last week (with the 27-26 victory) and it’s important you get yourself within a position to take something. That would have been my view with about 10 minutes to go last week, that we need to get something out of here to take with us into this game. So for Saracens not to get anything, we’ll know how important that is when we meet them again.”
For now, though, Foley has to prepare for a return to Guinness Pro12 action this weekend when Munster visit Cardiff Blues in the Welsh capital on Saturday evening at the Arms Park, minus 11 of his frontline players who will tomorrow check in for Ireland’s Guinness Series training camp in Maynooth, Kildare.
Wing Andrew Conway will not be one of them, although Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said last week the former Leinster back, now in his second season at Munster, was on his radar after a bright start to the season.
Yet another strong showing against Saracens following a try-scoring turn in the win at Sale six days earlier may see the 23-year-old move a little further towards Test recognition.
Foley certainly thinks so, praising Conway’s work ethic as well as the talent that had marked him out as one to watch whilst still a schools player in Blackrock’s Leinster Junior and Senior Cup-winning sides.
“He was good, wasn’t he?” Foley said of Conway. “Even the chase up for the kick that hit the posts, he was a fella that is doing the extra bits. He’s a great work ethic, a great lad to have in your squad.
“I remember (we) tried to get him when he was 18 after we’d spotted him playing with the schoolboys. He is a talent and Ireland are fortunate to have him as a fella they can leave out.
“Maybe he’ll get in there for a game, I hope he does and I think he deserves it but he doesn’t we’ll benefit out of that.
“He’s a hard man to leave out of your team. He turns up to work and gets the work done. He was going up there for balls against (David) Strettle and (Chris) Ashton and was winning those contests. They’re the little things that happen but he spends 15 to 20 minutes at the end of training doing that. He does a lot of work both on and off the pitch. He understands the game. His other position is 15 and he understands how to play in the back three. He was caught out last week against Sale for (Johnny) Leota’s try and that would have been pointed out to him and he would have addressed that and understands that. This week he turns up and has a good game on the back of making mistakes and working hard during the week and rectifying the mistakes that were identified. But they all turn up and do their work and they’re a pleasure to work with.”
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