Whatever about the gathering Munster bandwagon, which will this weekend take them into a Guinness Pro12 semi-final at home to Ospreys, its origins lie in the sands of Lanzarote and a February warm-weather training camp.
Dumped unceremoniously out of the Champions Cup after a humbling 33-10 defeat at Saracens in January, the province looked all at sea, their campaign all but over with four months of the league still to play.
Yet head coach Anthony Foley, his coaches and players had other ideas and a six-day trip to Club La Santa got Munster’s season back on track. One defeat in nine Pro12 games since their return is testament to that and the men in red rounded off their regular season schedule with an eight-try hammering of Newport Gwent Dragons in Cork to claim second place in the table and book an all-important home semi at Thomond Park this Saturday.
Denis Hurley, who captained Munster to that 50-27 victory at the weekend in the absence of hip-injury victim Peter O’Mahony, pinpointed the trip to the Canary Islands as the turning point in their season as the squad, minus its Six Nations contingent, went through not just their usual strength and conditioning and rugby work but also were divided into groups to take part in daily challenges including a swimming competition, beach volleyball tournament, kayaking and a triathlon.
“It’s part of the game,” Hurley said about Munster’s European exit, “you’ve just got to try and park things as quickly as possible. We spent a week over in Lanzarote and that gave us an opportunity of being in a camp atmosphere.
“We had players’ meetings and stuff like that and we were able to talk to the coaches as well afterwards and put together a type of plan that we wanted to go forward with that would get us into this position that we finally got to. But it was great. We were able to talk about the way we wanted to attack, the way we approach training and things like that and how we were going to get the best out of it, it’s been quite good. At times you have to learn from these things and thankfully it set us up quite well for the end of the season.”
The head coach was delighted with the way his players moved on from their Saracens setback.
“It was something that could have easily been put on the shelves after being knocked out of Europe,” Foley said, “but the club’s focus was kicking on and making sure we’d the best preparation possible going into the latter stages of the season.
“It was about making sure that we had momentum, the weather over there at times wasn’t as hot as we’d have liked and a bit windy, but the work that we did was beneficial for everyone concerned and it’s brought a core group of players through a tough period and has had an impact on the pitch.”
That tough period right in the middle of his first season as head coach makes Foley believe his players will benefit not just heading into this weekend’s play-offs but for the seasons to come.
“We’ve had to call on different players at different times to do different jobs and they’ve really stepped up. “There hasn’t been any heads dropped, fellas have come out fighting at every opportunity. There’s a good competition within the group at training sessions, good competition for selection. Everyone puts their hands up and hopefully we can grow beyond that year with it.”
Foley is not about to start thinking he has cracked his first head coach job, despite putting Munster on course for a first trophy since 2011. There is still plenty of work to be done yet for him and the coaching team he assembled at the start of the season following the departures of Rob Penney and Simon Mannix. “You’re never fully there after one season, it’s a building process with recruitment. We’re obviously recruiting this year and players will come and go,” the former back rower said.
“The coaches are a year wiser, talking to the guys who are coming into it the first time to the professional game (as coaches), Jerry (Flannery), Mick (O’Driscoll) and Brian (Walsh) - it’s just telling them how quick things will happen, how quickly it will be over with. Their reflection on it as well will help them going forward. Obviously, you make mistakes and there’s errors along the way, but it’s how you react and how you manage them. We’ve done that well.
“We’ve a home semi-final, but there’s nothing guaranteed - we know that from past experience and we just want to go out at Thomond Park and give a good account of ourselves.”
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