Munster 38 Glasgow Warriors 17: Life will begin again for Munster Rugby this morning, the terrible limbo of the last seven days at an end, in some senses. The players provided their own, emphatic punctuation mark at Thomond Park on Saturday delivering a performance that will live long in the memory for the remarkable circumstances in which it was forged.
They did it for Axel. That was as it should have been following the sudden passing of head coach Anthony Foley the previous Sunday at their team hotel in Paris.
The way they did it, however, should become a source of inspiration to them and future Munster generations, every bit as legendary to the province as the man they honoured.
For last Saturday in Limerick was one of those days no scriptwriter would have dared concoct: a team in turmoil finding strength in one another and the memory of the friend they had buried just 24 hours earlier to win in the face of adversity.
Munster channelled their grief into a controlled ferocity that been barely conceivable even in the moments before kick-off when, during an immaculately observed minute’s silence, tears flowed across the pained features of players who would ordinarily be bearing the game faces of men about to put their bodies through hell in pursuit of victory.
Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus had been unsure what performance his players were capable of producing even as they warmed up in almost surreal circumstances, Foley’s former coaching comrades running drills at one end of Thomond Park, Gregor Townsend conducting similar routines for his Glasgow squad at the other and in the middle, the Munster Rugby Supporters Club choir singing the Fields of Athenry and There Is An Isle in a mournful, sombre tribute.
At the end of a week of heartbreak and ritual, it could have all added up to an overwrought performance from the men in red, the passion of a sell-out 26,000 crowd united with them in sorrow all too overwhelming.
Erasmus need not have feared. Instead the occasion provided inspiration and a performance that he and Foley and the other Munster coaches had been building towards. Two early tries, superbly orchestrated by fly-half and man of the match Tyler Bleyendaal, who scored the opener just three minutes in, set the tone, a statement of intent that Munster were not going to be denied on this day of days, not even by a talented and potent Glasgow outfit who had put Leicester to the sword eight days earlier.
The sending off of Keith Earls after 18 minutes for a dangerous tip tackle on hooker Fraser Brown could also have derailed everything, leaving 14 men to defend a 14-3 lead for more than an hour. Instead, Finn Russell’s missed penalty for Earl’s indiscretion drifted wide to suck more wind out of Glasgow’s sails and Munster were galvanised even further, Simon Zebo adding a third try before the break, the wonderful Bleyendaal nailing his third conversion and fourth successive kick of the half to send the home side in 24-3 at the interval.
A penalty try for Munster was the reward for a commanding opening to the second half and the dominance of a home pack that overpowered Glasgow’s, a fitting way to bring up the bonus point. Though the Scots took advantage of 14-man Munster’s overworked legs by grabbing two tries to give them hope of a losing bonus point, it was the undermanned home side which finished stronger, Rory Scannell adding a fifth try, converted by Bleyendaal’s replacement Ian Keatley with a great touchline kick to seal an unforgettable victory four minutes from time at a point when they had every right to be out on their feet.
“Listen, they did it for Axel,” Erasmus explained. “It’s as simple as that.
“If you’ve got something like that in your heart, when you’re really tired that doesn’t go away. It stays there.
“For years to come, for months to come, you can’t only rely on that because, in the most respectful way, life slowly moves on.
“But it was tough to get guys off the park. It was tough to keep guys from wanting to go onto the park and make a difference there, which again is just a tribute to Axel and the respect the players had for Axel.” Foley, Erasmus said, had always known his players were capable of producing such a good rugby performance and it was incumbent on them to continue to believe in themselves.
“That was his biggest frustration,” Erasmus said, “that he believed so much in the players and he knew what they can do and what they’re capable of but sometimes they were not believing in themselves. That was his frustration. I think the players should take a lot of learning out of this. Myself, take a lot of learning out of this, and then if we have performances like that – we’ll never get crowds as emotionally involved as they were today, because this was special, but players should realise that the fans will be here if we play like that and stadiums will be full and that’s the way we can rebuild Munster to where it was.”
S Zebo (R O’Mahony, 77); D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal (I Keatley, 66), C Murray (D Williams, 76); D Kilcoyne (B Scott, 71), N Scannell (D Casey, 61, replaced by N Scannell 67), J Ryan (S Archer, 68); D Ryan (R Copeland, 77), B Holland; P O’Mahony (J O’Donoghue, 60), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
S Hogg; S Lamont, A Dunbar (P Murchie, 60), S Johnson, R Hughes; F Russell (M Bennett, 60), H Pyrgos (A Price, 43); G Reid (A Allan, 26), F Brown (P MacArthur, 47), Z Fagerson (S Puafisi, 43); T Swinson, J Gray; R Harley, R Wilson (L Wynne, 77), J Strauss (S Favaro, 32).
Jerome Garces (France)
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