With the pressure valve released a little, our rugby correspondent Simon Lewis teases out the green shoots of Munster’s recovery with head coach Anthony Foley.
After a turbulent nine weeks for Munster Rugby, a terrible sequence of results which saw every aspect of the provincial set-up come under the most forensic of scrutiny from supporters, pundits and former players, the men in red seem to have turned a corner.
That losing run, which began on
November 28 with a home league defeat to Connacht saw Munster stumble five times in a row, including back-to-back Champions Cup defeats by Leicester and a further Thomond Park reverse to Leinster. The pressure valve was released only briefly with a hard-fought Pro12 victory up at Ulster as the worst was still to come, a second-half meltdown in Paris as the province hit rock bottom at the hands of 14-man Stade Francais.
That was then. Two wins in a row, vengeance against Stade in Limerick followed by another bonus-point win, this time in Treviso last Sunday, may have come too late to rescue qualification for Europe’s knockout stages but it has suggested the dawn has arrived to sweep away the darkness.
As Anthony Foley nursed a cup of coffee at the University of Limerick 24 hours after the victory in Italy, the head coach was still taking nothing for granted on that score. Munster’s fall from grace has elicited a fascination across the country, inviting criticism from former team-mates, microscopic analysis across all media platforms and even the odd, very funny Gift Grub sketch. All of which serves as a reminder that Foley stands at the helm of what is still one of the most iconic brands in Irish sport.
So when he has asked if a corner has been negotiated these past two weeks, the boss exclaimed with a laugh and one eye fixed on today’s Pro12 trip to Zebre: “It depends how we go this weekend.”
He was in a similar position last season, his first as head coach since succeeding Rob Penney and a European exit at the hands of Clermont and Saracens had been just as painful. But the fallout from Champions Cup failure seems more calamitous this time around.
“Well, we’re 12 months further down the road, you get your honeymoon period and then they go after you, that’s the nature of it.
“Hopefully we’ve got some growth out of the experience. It would be a shame to have gone through what we’ve gone through and not learned anything from it. We definitely don’t want to go back there.
“I think there’s an element that needs to drive on as well. We’ve a lot of players that need to push on to the next level now and hopefully that will happen.
“This group haven’t won a trophy. Some of them have won a B&I Cup, some of them will have won the Magner’s League in 2011 but some of these guys are that young they wouldn’t have been involved in that group.
“So we need to get to the knockout stages, get to finals and try and win a trophy. That’s where this group needs to go, getting out of our group in Europe again.”
Foley is not one to paper over cracks, he has met head on the recent failure of his team to execute their skills and convert possession into points.
He also points to reasons for optimism for the rest of the season; the return from long-term injuries of Duncan Casey and captain Peter O’Mahony; the likelihood new signings Francis Saili and Mark Chisholm and Mario Sagario will come to the fore in the coming months; the excitement of blooding the likes of Rory and Niall Scannell; the interprovincial successes of the U19s and 20s and the presence of seven players in the Irish U20 squad; as well as the loyalty of Munster’s support which has held steady in their several thousands.
And had we spoken later in the week he might have addedthe retention, on three-year deals, of key figures Keith Earls and Conor Murray.
Perhaps Foley should trumpet those achievements and qualities more loudly rather than silently invite criticism?
“We don’t. It’s not our nature. I think the knowledgeable people get it. I think they’ve been through it. You don’t hear the Kerry people talking about their footballers the whole time or the Kilkenny people talking about their hurlers the whole time. So get on with it and appreciate what you have and make sure that you leave a legacy behind you that’s worth following.
“I think from our point of view at the moment, we are going back into a competition, the Pro12 where we were beaten in the final last year. We need to get a run of results together to keep ourselves in the top four. It’s not lost on us that qualification for Europe is tagged onto that and it’s important we get that job done.
“There’s so much criticism out there that we just want to get on and show people where we can finish up, how high we are, how good we are and let people judge us from there rather than helping them how to judge.
“There’s a lot of good around the game, there was a lot of good in Thomond Park against Stade, 14,000 in the stadium singing, supporting... and the crowd that came over to Treviso was exceptional for an away trip when the likelihood was that we were going to be out of the competition before the game kicked off. There was a great atmosphere over there and I thought the boys responded well towards it.
“We want more Munster players in the Irish squad, in the Irish U20s and we want more Munster players in the Lions but we have to have a process in place in order to achieve that. I think there’s a good process there for the players to feel that they can progress and be successful.
“So hopefully there’s growing confidence within the group and outside it that it’s going in the right direction.”
That is certainly that sense within the camp, even when the going was particularly bumpy in the weeks around Christmas, when former England and Lions assistant coach Andy Farrell was parachuted in, with Foley’s blessing, as a part-time coaching consultant.
He references Farrell’s impressions when asked how the players have emerged from that period.
“I was talking to Andy about it when he first arrived in and said to him ‘well, do you think this crowd has lost a few games’ and he said you wouldn’t think it from the meetings and in the group.
“There’s no real negativity, there’s fellas laughing, smiling, and joking. There’s a personal responsibility that they’re pushing on and trying to get a group responsibility for it and they’re taking a lot of things on board. They haven’t gone away to hide, or pointed fingers, no-one’s blaming each other inside there, they fully appreciate that everyone’s in it together. It’s no different than when we lost to Northampton (in 2000), no different than when we lost to Leicester (in 2002), Toulouse, Stade Francais, whichever one. It was no different when Castres beat us over there. You’re better together than apart.
“Now there’s that closeness in it and hopefully that develops into friendship, camaraderie, tightness, that when you’re going through bad moments in a game, if you make a mistake you don’t concede seven because somebody’s covered you. If we can have a bit of that, I think we’ll build a strong cohesive group going forward that instinctively trusts one another.
“I’m very optimistic about where this group can go. I look at them and if they get a small bit of luck I think they’re a very hard team to beat. I’m fortunate enough that I watch them train and then watch back the training tapes and if they can play to the level that they train at it’s a very optimistic picture of where they can go.
“There’s a lot of competition, there’s a lot of talent in the group and it’s about getting something to bounce their way. They’re a good side with a lot of very good players in it and a good calibre of person as well. So we’ll see where it goes.
“We need another couple of big games, but that’s internal, just to solidify everything that’s been done. And you still need that little bit of luck and hopefully we’ll get that over time. The boys are in a good place at the moment, they’re well prepared and it’s just about them being in the right position. What is it? Luck is where opportunity meets preparation. I came across that somewhere (Roman philosopher Seneca).
“So if we just keep preparing properly, turning up and making sure we’re always challenging each other and if we could get the opportunity then hopefully it’s a match for us.”
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