Late Foley the spur in Munster's European run
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: As the broken-hearted Munster players mourned coach Anthony Foley following his sudden death in October, it seemed inconceivable that an underperforming squad would be involved in the European knockouts.
The shock over Foley, 42, who previously played for the Irish province, seemed destined to become a tragic epitaph to what would be another campaign to forget for the former two-time European champions, whose glory days appeared to be behind them.
Instead, just a day after his funeral, Munster not only trounced Glasgow 38-14 at an emotionally charged Thomond Park despite playing for more than an hour down to 14 men, but used the win as a platform to embark on a drive to the quarterfinals of the European Champions Cup.
Former Ireland flyhalf Tony Ward, who inspired Munster to a celebrated 12-0 triumph over New Zealand in 1978, attributes the turnaround in fortunes to the "galvanising effect" of the beloved Foley's passing.
"I was sitting beside the Munster players in the church that day of his funeral and wondering to myself, 'How in the hell are these guys going to play a match tomorrow?' but they not only did so, but it has been a driving force," Ward told AFP.
Former players, including Ward, have also noted the return of the "fear factor" at Thomond Park, Munster's home ground in the southern city of Limerick.
Crowd numbers had been dwindling for years but the ground was packed for the Glasgow game and has been sold-out since, with another capacity crowd expected for Saturday's quarterfinal against French giants Toulouse.
Reflecting on the transformation, the Munster scrum coach and former Test hooker Jerry Flannery told Ireland's Newstalk Radio of his "embarrassment" at the province's poor form prior to Foley's death.
"I can't stress enough how proud I was after the Glasgow game, when the former players, the guys who I'd been almost ashamed to look in the eye from the previous season, when I saw how proud they were of the current players," he said.
However, Mark Meehan, a spokesman for the Munster Rugby Supporters Club, played down Foley's passing as the main reason for their run to the last eight of Europe's premier club Rugby Union competition because "emotion can only bring you so far".
"If you look at the stats from last year they show we were very, very close but just couldn't finish the job when we got into the [opposition] 22 and that ended up costing us games we should have won," he told AFP.
"Saying that, I believe it drove home the fact that there are a lot worse things than losing a rugby game and that has brought a sense of freedom to their play.”
Ward believes Munster will win at home this weekend, but their ability to progress further could depend on whether reigning champions Saracens fulfil expectations to beat Glasgow on Sunday.
A clash against the London club would open up a favourable semifinal draw for Munster at Dublin's Lansdowne Road next month.
"Toulouse will be at one hell of a psychological disadvantage this weekend," said Ward.
"The stadium will rock, there will be a sea of red [Munster's colour] and that bond between the team and the supporters is now stronger than ever since the death of Anthony Foley – it had a galvanising effect that changed everything."