Munster coach urges supporters to make some noise and help secure Euro berth
Redemption or damnation, take two. The travelling roadshow of the faithful and brave hauls its latest – and final – revival mission into its spiritual home, Limerick, for the last leg of an exhaustive and exhausting quest simply to retain their berth amongst Europe’s elite.
Surrounding us upon the walls of the Thomond Park suite are reminders of the status this eminent cathedral has achieved. Legends peer down at us from an array of illustrations and photos. The All Blacks. Paul O’Connell. Oh, and Rod Stewart.
This place was once more than merely a rugby ground, and that was a good thing. Then, it got redeveloped into something that also became more than merely a rugby ground. And that hasn’t always been a good thing.
Both the house and its occupants have lost their way of late; it is a home built for heroes but it just doesn’t feel like there any more heroes left these days, and a lot of the people are staying at home. Opponents have sensed this feeling and many have thrived where once few struggled to breathe.
Anthony Foley, perhaps because he is also reaching the end of his personal path in this, his final week as de facto head coach, is minded to wistfully recall, fleetingly, those glory days as a player when Scarlets, this week’s visitors, served traditionally hostile hospitality.
“When we used to go to Stradey, you got there out of the shed, you wouldn’t get the greatest changing-room in the world. The Gnoll (Neath) was the same. The changing-room would barely fit 14 players, never mind 23.
“When you get to the grounds now,” Foley adds, with a nod to our luxurious surrounds, “a lot of the modern stadiums have comforts and everyone is fresh and keen. They come here and look around, and everybody wants to play rugby in an atmosphere and a stadium like this.”
This weekend, it needs to be different or else next year everything will be different.
Munster need their supporters to encourage them just as much as the supporters want to be enthused by their team. A congested and committed capacity crowd at Irish Independent Park last Friday reminded us that it is not always the number of bums on seats that make a difference.
“It’s about the people coming on Saturday and making sure that the voices are heard,” says Foley, in a direct entreaty not just to the thousands who have stayed at home but more specifically the thousands who have remained loyal.
“I think that’s what we had in Cork. Rather than watch the game they participated in the game. They got into the mood of the game and they understood the consequences of winning and losing.
“When the maul started to get going it really lifted the dander of the place and even though it was 20-19 we were camped on their line and there was only one team going to win the game.
“If we can get that here on Saturday that’s what we’re after. To me, the volume of our supporters in the ground isn’t really the point. It’s the volume that comes out of that supporter for us, as part of the team, that is the more important thing.”
The marketing suits may not agree -not to mention the number crunchers lumbered with a €9m stadium debt and annual losses running into the millions too – but there might be a compelling sporting argument for reverting to Cork more often in that case.
“Look, we’ll play games where they’re put. It’s not my decision. Like, when I was involved in the Munster A team, we played in Nenagh, we played in Waterford, it’s where we can get the best support.
“I’m all on for the team being the best supported because when you get home advantage you need home advantage.
“When we were over in Parc Y Scarlets – the successor to the old Stradey Park – it was a kick in the 80th minute that won the game for them. So there is a bit of pressure that can be put upon referees and that can come from the terraces.”
Should Munster get the job done this weekend – a win will guarantee a European place – there may be a sense of relief in some quarters.
For Foley too, one might suspect, except that the feral competitor within remains wounded at the emptiness of a season where survival has been the primary goal from as long way out.
“I’m never glad, never glad,” he says, instinctively reiterating his disappointment with a campaign which has effectively cost him his control of his squad.
This week will see him select a Munster team and devise a game-plan for the final time.
“I want to fight to the end. I want to be in every competition and try and win as many trophies as possible. That’s the way I’ve been reared,” he said.
The stakes are as high as they were in Cork last weekend; if anything, higher, if one remembers that Scarlets are a better team than Edinburgh and that there will be no second chances should Munster fail.
“We have to win. We know that. They have to win to catch Ulster. Ospreys have to win to catch us and Ulster have to win their game so within those two games there’s a lot at stake,” said Foley.
“We’re all very conscious of it but we have to keep an eye on Edinburgh as well, so it’s important that we get our job done; and if we get our job done then well, it’s in our hands.
“Everybody wants to finish with a win. It’s unfortunate to not go any further in the competition but, you know, you get what you deserve out of the year.”
Munster will know soon enough just what those just deserts will entail.