Since the shocking news last Sunday, once confirmed the game on Saturday would proceed, it became a focal point for the team and supporters to come together to pay our respects to the late, great Anthony Foley. The players wanted to do him justice on the pitch while the Red Army wanted to play their part from the terraces and stands. As Ronan O’Gara wrote in his column in the Examiner on Friday: “But what we will see is the crowd at Thomond Park carrying the Munster team. There is only man who could trigger the tsunami of emotion we are bracing ourselves for and that is Axel, because that ground hasn’t been full in a few years, and there’s one reason it’ll be full tomorrow — to go and respect Axel. That’s why I’m going. People have seen what Axel did with Munster and to earn the respect and reputation he has and now it’s payback time.”
No one, including themselves, knew if the players would be able to channel the emotion of the occasion or if they would be overwhelmed by it, as Peter O’Mahony had been at the press conference on Wednesday. We said that the result was unimportant given the context; that it was a superhuman effort just to take to the pitch in the first place but the players were determined to do him proud. I felt that they were glad to have a target to hit, on which to take out their pain as they lined up Glasgow player after player and knocked them backwards, often knocking the ball out of their grasp and pouncing on it to set up another attack. The maul and scrum were weapons of choice as befitted their fallen leader and they were deployed ruthlessly and effectively. I heard Gregor Townsend say that his team had not turned up but in fairness they were not allowed play for much of the game. Munster were glad to let their actions do their talking as they put in one of their most complete and dominant performances against a quality team to seal a bonus point win perhaps since the Toulouse quarterfinal in April 2014.
The Toulouse game came to mind as we were saying that we had not seen as large a crowd in Thomond since that game, even for the Christmas derby games. When I arrived at 11.30 there was already a good crowd on both the east and west terraces while the north and south were both filling also. Imelda had kept me a spot and it was great to have the support of our usual bunch, the Waterford crew, Kevin and Joan from Cork, Tony, Imelda and Pascal from Limerick, Conor and George… for the emotional day ahead. Paul arrived from Tipperary on crutches after wrecking his knee to take a seat in front of us. He did not want to miss the game.
I had meant to buy the commemorative program but as I had walked through from the LIT carpark I had not passed by the sellers. When I heard that it had sold out (a reprint is planned) I asked Paul and Pauline behind me if I could take a photo of the back cover for the blog as it has a lovely graphic, charting the career of our special #8.
The pre-game atmosphere was muted, with such songs as “From Clare to Here,” “The Parting Glass” and U2’s “One” playing over the PA. Peter O’Mahony wore his emotions on his face as he ran out for the warm-up and my heart went out to them all. The 16th man found it’s voice to provide encouragement. Glasgow received very warm applause as they left the field after their warm-up while the roars as Munster exited would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
The crowd almost drowned out the choir’s rendition of “The Fields of Athenry”. It was hard to belt out “There is an Isle” past the lump in my throat but I got myself under control again to finish strongly. It was so moving and earned a standing ovation. We cheered as the PA announced the teams – very few talking through it – and when the choir returned to lead us for “Stand Up and Fight” you could actually hear the hush as we waited for them to start. It was a bit surreal but ultimately respectful.
Another nice touch was to see the guard of honour line up in their Shannon RFC and St Munchin school rugby kits. A great roar went up to welcome the team to the pitch in sharp contrast to the minute’s silence which followed as all 23 players lined up. The big screen showed the photo of Anthony Foley, so we missed seeing the West Stand above us hold up red cards to form a mosaic of 8 AXEL 8. The sight of the two large Munster flags in midfield with the tips touching the ground (like the lance of a fallen knight) was beautiful. I did not see the name Axel on the jerseys below the Munster crest till I watched the highlights later. Kudos to the organisers who planned all the details to create such a moving tribute.
The first try came early and gave us an insight into the mindset of the team as they physically imposed themselves on Glasgow. From a lineout claimed by the captain, the forwards mauled into Glasgow territory.
Niall Scannell, Tommy O’Donnell, then Dave Kilcoyne took it on before Earls darted through a gap. As he was hauled down he got the offload away, Tyler on his European Cup debut gathered it before weaving his way into their 22 and over the line. The TMO had a look but momentum had carried him over the line and the score was awarded after only 3 minutes. A dream start.
Applause broke out at the 8th minute as another mark of respect to Anthony Foley.
Glasgow won a penalty shortly afterwards to make it 7-3 before Jaco Taute, also making his European debut, took a lovely pass from Rory Scannell to score the second try.
That had come from a turnover won by CJ Stander from which the forwards and Conor Murray worked hard to set up field position before Tyler and Rory combined well to create the 2:1 overlap for Jaco and Keith on the wing. It was also converted by Tyler to make it 14-3.
An incident in the 19th minute when Keith Earls lifted the leg of the Glasgow hooker Fraser Brown, did not seem to us to merit a red card, maybe yellow but surely not red? The TMO and ref did not agree and off he went. There seemed to be some niggle as he walked past the Glasgow players on his way to the bench which had CJ rushing forward to provide back up. Given that Keith had played with Anthony Foley in 2008 as he was breaking into the squad and their fathers had played together I think the adrenalin flowing through Keith gave him more strength that you would expect which meant when he lifted the leg he actually managed to topple the heavier man. He had been putting in plenty of big hits up to that point.
We – biased as we are, – felt that the red card was harsh. The citing commission will look at it and decide if further sanction is required. When the penalty kick went wide it felt like poetic justice! The crowd realised that the team needed a lift and we raised our game also. At times it was like a sing-off, we would have started singing Stand up and fight on the west side while the East side might be doing the Fields of Athenry but the overall effect was incredible, a veritable cauldron.
They say forwards win games and the backs determine by how much and so it proved to be. Billy Holland stole the first Glasgow lineout after Earls went off as the pack continued to heap pressure on Glasgow. After a crooked throw-in to their own line out a few phases later, Munster again applied great pressure to the Glasgow scrum to win a penalty which Tyler kicked to give 14 man Munster a two try cushion. A miskick by Finn Russell went dead giving Munster excellent position from which to launch an attack off their solid scrum. Rory Scannell was again central to the move as he broke through before his pass set Simon Zebo free down the wing. The TMO had a close look to ensure he had not gone into touch and that it was not a double movement before awarding the try. Tyler added the conversion. There was no Z celebration but a glance heavenwards said it all. Glasgow were not getting much of a look-in, they did finish the half in the Munster 22 but went in at the break 24-3 down.
The half time minis featured Ballina/Killaloe, Bruff, Waterpark and Tralee/Listowel. The sun shone and it felt like his spirit was present and pleased with what he saw.
It was important to lay down a marker early in the second half that Munster were not letting up. Conor Murray nearly got a try off the base of the posts but instead won a 5m scrum. After three resets the penalty try was just reward for the efforts of the pack. CJ Stander had nearly gotten through but having been playing with advantage the pack went for the jugular and the scrum was called for again.
Garces eventually awarded the penalty try but there was more than half an hour left. Would the emotional and physical energy drain their reserves as the game went on? Could they maintain their intensity and defend their line? Glasgow came close a few times, Simon Zebo got back in time to deny one effort, Darren Sweetnam took down another or rather two players in the same attacking move as if to say “thou shalt not pass”.
It was also Darren’s European debut and while he did not have much opportunity in attack there was one brilliant take of the 2nd half kick-off close to us that had us gasping in admiration in the second half.
The roar of appreciation as Peter O’Mahony left the pitch (and Jack O’Donoghue entered) was a rousing endorsement of his leadership and doggedness to keep Munster on the front foot all day. There was similar appreciation as others were also subbed to bring fresh legs onto the pitch. Unfortunately, Duncan Casey who came on for Niall Scannell was injured shortly after his introduction and had to be helped from the pitch. He has had no luck with injuries in recent years, hopefully this is just a short term set-back.
Eventually Glasgow got their first try after 66 minutes through Pat McArthur off the back of a maul, and 5 minutes later through Mark Bennett, both converted by Stuart Hogg. An anxious finish looked likely until a fifth Munster try through Rory Scannell who just managed to dot down in the corner despite the tackler trying to force him into touch, meant that victory was secured as Glasgow had only minutes left to score three tries. Ian Keatley kicked the difficult final conversion to maximise the points. The defence held firm until Robin Copeland won the final turnover which Ian booted out of play to bring the game to a close. Clapping had started as the clock turned past 79 minutes and it became thunderous applause at the final whistle. But there was more to come.
No one left early. Often as the end approaches a few folks shuffle past to make a quick getaway but that was not apparent at this game. At the final whistle, utterly spent, emotionally and physically I expect, CJ Stander (wearing # 24) fell to his knees. There were embraces and slaps on the back as the players made their way to clap Glasgow off the pitch before coming back out to show their appreciation for the crowd. Then they formed a circle in midfield. We were still singing but when we realised they were also singing we hushed up and felt privileged to join in with them as the extended squad – including Johnny Holland, Cathal Sheridan, Mike Sherry, Dave Foley amongst others, – sang their foot-stamping anthem “Stand up and fight”
It was only when watching it on the big screen that we saw the circle had included Tony and Dan Foley, what a special moment! The lap of honour took longer than usual, but no one was complaining. The group in their Shannon #8 jerseys on the north terrace and for the ball boys lined up in front of us got special attention, as players and supporters savoured the moment. As Tom English wrote for BBC Scotland: “of all the remarkable things that have been seen here down the years – the great performances and seismic European wins – that simple moment when a family, a team and a support were united together was one to top them all. “
While Tyler won man of the match there must have been a lot of competition for the selectors as the team were superb throughout. All the subs got time on the pitch, – including Brian Scott who also made his European debut replacing Dave Kilcoyne – and their fresh legs were crucial as Glasgow looked to finish strongly.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo (Ronan O’Mahony ’78); Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls 9 (red card ’20); Tyler Bleyendaal (Ian Keatley ’66), Conor Murray (Duncan Williams ’76); Dave Kilcoyne (Brian Scott ’72)), Niall Scannell (Duncan Casey ’61 to ’67), John Ryan (Stephen Archer ’68); Donnacha Ryan (Robin Copeland ’77), Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (captain) (Jack O’Donoghue ’61), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
GLASGOW: Stuart Hogg; Sean Lamont, Alex Dunbar (Mark Bennett ’61), Sam Johnson, Rory Hughes; Finn Russell (Peter Murchie ’61), Henry Pyrgos (Ali Price ’48); Gordon Reid (Alex Allan ’27), Fraser Brown (Pat MacArthur ’48), Zander Fagerson (Sila Puafisi ’44); Tim Swinson, Jonny Gray; Rob Harley, Ryan Wilson (Lewis Wynne ’76), Josh Strauss (Simone Favaro ’33).
Stats from ESPN can be found here
In the Sky match report they included the post match thoughts of Fla.
Official match photos are available here
As I was leaving it was nice to be greeted by Rathbaner who recognised me from my regular photos in this blog so we had a chat before I went outside. There Ian met me and said he was looking forward to this week’s edition and complimented me on last week’s tribute, which I appreciated as it was a difficult one to write. Indeed earlier Imelda had said she thought it was my best one yet. Up in the MRSC bar Aideen also said that she had enjoyed that edition. Aideen had been up in the west stand and gave me her red “tile” as per the photo above.
Arnaud found me chatting to them so it was lovely to finally meet him also, over for the weekend from Brittany. Carmel was there with her sisters and friends; Mr Chips had driven down from north of Belfast and introduced me to another forum poster, Jenta. Piquet recognised me also; he was disgusted to have missed seeing Stringer’s try as the TVs in the bar were replaying the 2006 final. Jay from MRSC London found me to give me my tickets for the Leicester away game, well done to them for organising a group discount – 300 tickets were bought through them! After a final farewell to my MRSC Dublin buddies it was time to head home, stopping en route to see the wonderful tributes displayed outside the Shannon clubhouse.
The rugby world has been united in support of Munster this week, with Clermont encouraging their supporters, the Yellow Army to wear red to their home game and Scarlets having the number 8 on the front of all their jerseys for their game. In Belfast the supporters sang “The fields of Athenry” in solidarity and they are planning a tribute to Axel in their away changing rooms, as Munster had done when Nevin Spence tragically died a few years ago. I had not noticed until I watched the game back that the Glasgow players wore a black armband sporting the name Axel in red letters. On Sunday the Leinster players wore red tee shirts with the initials AF before their game in France while the Connacht team wore red armbands during their game in Italy.
See the official EPRC montage here
As I walked out the gate I was hailed by John who I first met on one of my early away trips since I started the blog almost 4 years ago. He introduced me to two of his friends and told them that the blog is phenomenal! I think the players were phenomenal today and hopefully the shared traumatic experience of the past week will reinvigorate the bond between the team and the supporters. What better tribute would Axel want?
Thanks to John for his video of this stirring version of There is an Isle from the game. He has other videos also from the day on his channel jdtvideo – this one includes the SUAF in midfield after the game.
Also adding in this analysis from The42.ie of the performance for those who enjoy their excellent analysis. He also spotted after Darren’s great tackles that “play should have been halted for Favaro’s foot in touch.” – I was surprised that the commentators did not pick that up.