European Rugby Champions Cup: Munster 38-17 Glasgow Warriors

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Best of luck to today, emotional afternoon beckons. Team and fans in unison. Let’s do it for Axel! – Hawkeye Sidekick (Morning of October 21st)

Glasgow Warriors, a team who produced the standout performance of the opening round of the tournament last week scoring fifty points against Leicester Tigers would have felt confident of producing a performance against a Munster team whose attentions were far removed from the training ground after a traumatic week.

Munster had just lost their head coach. Munster had just lost a man who embodied the province. Munster had lost a legend of their club. It is in this backdrop that 26,000 Munster fans assembled. It is in this backdrop where a group of Munster players and management came together and produced a performance which defied logic but rekindled an atmosphere in Thomond Park which has being missing for a number of years.

I knew that there was something special about to happen in Thomond Park by the number of fans who were making their way to the grounds at least two hours before kickoff. I was in Raheen at around 11am on Saturday morning and multiple buses with Munster supporters were leaving, the volume of support spoke volumes. Castletroy, a similar story. The locals were going to Thomond Park to support the team, to be the sixteenth man, to provide the guidance to the team in their hour of need.

The events leading to kickoff were impeccably executed. The tributes, the sight of numerous Shannon flags in the crowd was a great touch, a reminder of Foley’s connection with the Shannon RFC, a link between the amateur and professional sides of the game in the province. The tribute from the West Stand was sensational; it was an emphatic tribute and the atmosphere around the ground was crackling; it was back to the Miracle games against Gloucester and Sale.

Any confidence that Glasgow had going into this contest was gone. The fans had set the fixture, lifted the team and management to new heights. The hunger, intensity and power of Munster in the first ten minutes was incredible; winning the 50/50 battles. The running lines were full of speed and aggression and offloading was on point evident in Earl’s sublime pass to Bleyendaal who with plenty to do evaded several Glasgow tackles and over for a sensational try.

The subsequent conversion had Munster seven points to the good. Glasgow were stung, surely there was a reaction coming. However, Munster continued to control the pack exchanges, game line yards were being made, breakdown clearouts were emphatic. A second try was coming and with Scannell making a superb line break, the ball was spread out wide to Jaco Taute who went over, a physical player who needs to be signed long term to the province. The resulting conversion was sublime; the curl of the ball coming in at the last moment, this was going to be Munster’s day.

Even a red-card to the hosts could not derail the atmosphere in the venue; it even increased the cauldron atmosphere. Earls tackle was worthy of a red card; loss of control than cynical. Glasgow were fighting a losing battle even playing against fourteen. As Gregor Townsend said post-game, Glasgow were playing 26,000 people, not just 15 players. Scannell at twelve produced his best performance in a Munster jersey; his ability to beat the first tackle was key to the third try as the ball found its way to Simon Zebo who just got over for the try. Axel probably gave him a shove over the line. Another excellent conversion from the touchline and Munster had a 24-3 lead at the break. How could they have this lead? Down to fourteen players. Logic out the window.

Glasgow were again on the back foot in the early exchanges of the second half with Munster’s pack to a man excelling in their ball carrying duties and set piece. John Ryan had an inspired afternoon;,,dlodlo scrum time dominance built the platform for Munster to launch penalties deep into Warrior’s territory. A fourth try was inevitable and more pressure on Glasgow’s scrum resulted in a penalty try; reward to the Munster pack. Axel Foley would have being pleased.

The inevitable exertions for the fourteen players took their toll in the third quarter and Glasgow suddenly found some form. Two quick tries for the Warriors, the second try was a superbly executed score and highlighted Glasgow at their best; quick ruck ball allowing Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg to orchestrate. Mark Bennett expertly scored and suddenly the gap was down to fourteen points. The home crowd reacted and the players followed suit.

A clinically worked fifth try was scored to provide much needed breathing space in the last ten minutes. The Munster pack again to the fore; making several game line breaks and Murray spotting Scannell out wide to go over in the corner. Ian Keatley who had replaced Bleyendaal by then continued to set the tone with a superb kick from the touchline. 38-17. Game over.

The crackling atmosphere in the Thomond Park stands and terraces continued until the final whistle as Ian Keatley lashed the ball out of play following a Glasgow knock-on. Mission accomplished but there was one last moment to remember. The Munster players escorted Axel Foley’s sons to the middle of the pitch to launch into ‘Stand Up and Fight’; a massive statement for the players to make. This result was for everyone. Everyone in the ground contributed to the result. Unforgettable memories and one hopes that this is how it will be going forward in Thomond Park going forward.

Glasgow Warriors are still very much in this pool. Their attacking rugby will yield additional wins in this tournament but they came up against a force which was almost paranormal in nature. As the great man would say, Munster played with a bit of dog in them. Foley’s charges delivered their most emphatic performance. Erasmus must now identify how to channel this performance in a consistent manner. Epic. One for the annals.

GAA – Senior Championship Draw Reflections

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Two weeks since Stephen Cluxton lifted Sam Maguire and condemned Mayo to another winter of disappointment, we had Rte trying to be Sky Sports Soccer AM / Super Sunday with players in the lounge area and announcing the 2017 draws. Hawkeye Sidekick casts an eye on proceedings and wonders could the draws be scheduled potentially early in the calendar year.

Is it just me or did anyone feel a bit weary heading to the draw ceremony last Thursday night? I think it is a little early to be staging such a draw. The intercounty season has only barely finished and we have this draw; some counties were probably cursing their luck on the draw outcome and potentially will lead to more delays in appointing managers.

Hurling:

Munster

Munster SHC drew up an intriguing draw with Tipperary and Cork locking horns in the quarter-final. Thurles, the likely venue for this fixture which is a shame as Cork on current form will struggle to contain the Tipperary forward line. Pairc Ui Chaoimh would have provided an interesting backdrop to see if Cork could put pressure on Tipperary given the Premier County’s less than stellar record in the venue in recent times. Waterford await the winners, a season where Waterford will be under pressure to deliver silverware but their style of play needs to be more attack based. Will Derek McGrath take the shackles of Waterford next season and if so, will it open up defensively weak points in the full back line? Tough side of the draw and it is a massive opportunity for either Clare or Limerick to get into a provincial final and playing deep into next summer. Clare have plenty to prove; a brilliant NHL campaign petered out badly in the summer with underwhelming performances against Waterford and Galway. A distinct of physicality was exposed down the spine of the team and defensively were all at sea in the All Ireland QF loss. Big onus on Donal O’Grady and Ben O’Connor to provide the direction to the new management ticket to get Clare moving upwards immediately; otherwise a difficult season awaits. Limerick. A true hurling enigma. John Kiely has his work cut out on both defensive and offensive areas. The back line lacked leadership in the half-back and full-back positions. When you add the sheer lack of quality ball into the full forward line, it was an abject season for Limerick. The attacking lines lacked cohesion and ball winning ability as well, something which needs to be addressed immediately. Potential Limerick club involvement for Patrickswell if they win the SHC title next weekend will do little to resolve these issues. Tipp or Waterford to be favored with Clare potentially as a dark horse to win the crown.

Leinster:

Wexford and Davy Fitzgerald will be either relishing or filled with dread over this draw. A potential last four tussle against Kilkenny will be a true acid test of where the Model County are in terms of progression under the Clare hurling supremo. Kilkenny will be competitive; one loss does not make this team a bad one but the quality of panel last season was not up to par and it was ruthlessly exposed in the All Ireland final reversal. The defensive problems could not be addressed as the KK management simply did not believe they had the personnel on the bench to stem the Tipperary tide. Wexford will be hindered potentially by a long All Ireland club run for Oulart with several players missing for NHL 1B selection. Wexford will hope for an extended qualifier campaign; looks like a transitional year for Davy Fitzgerald. Dublin and Ger Cunningham are under pressure already. No Danny Sutcliffe again next season and the prospect of facing a resurgent Galway outfit in the quarter-final does not bode well. Unless Dublin can identify two scoring forwards to complement David Treacy and allow Liam Rushe to control games at half-back, they are going nowhere. I am stunned that Dublin did not go all out and secure Davy Fitzgerald’s signature as Cunningham’s rein has flattered to deceive in the last two seasons. It looks like Kilkenny and Galway for the final decider. Kerry to cause an upset or two in the qualifier but the status quo in the province will remain.

Football:

Munster:

Limerick County Football board will find it hard to attract any interest in the senior managerial job after this draw. With a resurgent Clare first up, the prospects do not look good for the Division Four outfit and with the perennial provincial powerhouse of Kerry in the semi-final, it is looking like a fairly predictable result sequence. The other side of the draw is intriguing. Waterford are in the same boat as Limerick footballers unfortunately. They are lambs to the slaughter and it is down to Cork and Tipperary footballers. Tipperary were a revelation in the championship last season; their open brand of football and kick passing caught the eye. The prospect of traveling to Pairc Ui Rinn may tilt the balance to a Cork side who will be keen to make amends for last season; expect Cork to edge through with Aidan Walsh playing a prominent role in the midfield area to get to the provincial final albeit Kerry look favored to advance as province winners if the nucleus of the panel and minor additions gel together.

Leinster:

Johnny Cooper was comedy gold when reacting to Dublin’s tasking opening round assignment of Carlow or Wexford. The ‘treat them with respect’ GAA line was out before you knew it and Brolly was in his element. Dublin should travel to either venue for this contest. Kilkenny last season was a great occasion. Dublin on paper look too good for anything in this province. Kildare or Meath potentially will be in the final but either possess the attacking threat to seriously threaten Jim Gavin’s charges. McEntee’s introduction as Meath manager is a good appointment for the Royals but this is a work in prospect. The rest of the teams look under-par and a good league run may be the amount next season for the vast majority of Leinster teams. A sad indictment of where Leinster football is at. The underage success of the likes of Kildare and Meath in recent years cannot be transitioned quick enough to senior ranks.

Connacht:

There is potential of two shocks in the Ruislip and New York. Sligo look vulnerable heading to the Big Apple; their London reversal a couple of years ago does not inspire confidence and if they have to contend with Armagh’s Jamie Clarke in the NYC team, an upset is assured. Leitrim travel to London and it is a 50/50 contest. Roscommon will cruise through to the provincial final but with the managerial unrest far from being resolved, precious pre-season training plans have being wasted. Kevin McStay is under the microscope and it will be interesting to see if Roscommon can address the lethargic performances offered up in the championship this summer where they lacked cohesion at both ends of the pitch. Galway and Mayo is the standout tie of the championship in the province. Salthill will be buzzing; hard to know who will emerge victorious. Will Mayo provide the same intensity seen in the All Ireland final? Will Galway address the defensive problems which were exposed against Tipperary? An interesting championship awaits but will stick the neck out and say Mayo for the provincial honors.

Ulster:

Can Derry and Armagh get their panel problems sorted in time fot the championship? It is a defining season for Kieran McGeeney who after a wretched last season will go to rebound in the NFL and Championship. Derry’s player unrest looks ominous for Damien Cassidy and considering how porous defensively they were, it looks like Donegal vs. Tyrone in a last four tussle which could go anyway. Monaghan look to be the dark horse of this championship. Conor McManus is the difference between Monaghan and the rest of the teams in their side of the draw. Cavan have a bit to prove in the NFL Division One to be realistic province contenders. Donegal and Monaghan to contest the final with the Monaghan boys coming on strong to win the provincial honors.

Predictions:

Hurling: Tipperary (Munster) / Galway (Leinster)

Football: Kerry (Munster) / Dublin (Leinster) / Mayo (Connacht) / Monaghan (Ulster)

Anthony Foley – Mr. Munster Rugby

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Anthony Foley – Mr.Munster Rugby

Sunday afternoon. 1pm. I am in Kilkenny and eagerly awaiting the start of Munster’s European Cup campaign against star studded Racing Metro in Paris. Then an avalanche of text messages from friends both at home and in Paris for the game that unthinkably Munster Head Coach Anthony Foley had passed away at the young age of 42.

Anthony Foley. Words that spring to mind are integrity, work rate, leadership, motivator, Munster. Foley and Munster were interlinked; the first European Cup match at Thomond Park against Neath / Swansea featured Anthony Foley, a Shannon RFC player whose game management, tactical nous stood out even in the presence of leaders such as Galwey, Clohessy.

Foley was a pivotal link between the amateur days and the newly emerging professional paid ranks. Foley never forgot the traditions of amateur rugby based on honesty, work rate and supporting your team mate throughout through thick and thin. From his position in the back row, Foley processed calmness under pressure to make the right calls at the right time; when to put points on the board or when to put more pressure on an overworked opposition particularly in Thomond Park.

Shannon RFC, whose clubhouse is located beside the hallowed Thomond Park stadium was the starting point for Foley in his adult playing career. The St. Munchin’s student caught the eye in several AIL triumphs; his battles against players such as Victor Costello were to the fore; his leadership in the closing stages of derby tussles against Garryowen and Young Munster contributed in no small part to their prolific success on the pitch and you sensed when watching Foley even at this early stage of his career that international caps were not far away.

Foley’s international career was a mixed bag; initial promise led to an unexpected exile from the national setup for a couple of years until Gatland / O’Sullivan came to the fold and provided the Killaloe native with a second opportunity to shine, an opportunity he took with both hands. His nous in spotting gaps on the blindside, his ability to support the ball carrier stood out. Anyone who ever went up against Foley knew they were in a battle; the respect from NH / SH players past and present speaks volumes in the tributes today.

2006 will be regarded as the pivotal moment in Foley’s playing career. Munster’s final win against Biarritz laid the ghosts of previous season failures; the hand of Back, the Wasps semi-final tear jerking reversal were in the past. Foley’s tackle count, ability to motivate his troops after the early try concession were paramount in Munster securing the elusive European crown. He was the general that led from the front on that afternoon, no-one in Munster will ever forget that, never.

2008 was a continuation of the groundwork laid in previous years by players such as Foley. Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara took up the leadership mantle but when required Axel Foley words came again to the fore; assertive words, assertive action. The pack and back row grew in stature in that season. Wallace, Leamy, Quinlan and Foley set the tone with breakdown dominance and disrupting opposition ball.

Foley’s playing career was glittering and his leadership qualities on the pitch were ideal attributes to transition into the coaching side of the game. Rob Penney provided Foley his opportunity to advance his coaching credentials; his forward coach assignment taken with vigor albeit Munster’s style of play was evolving from pack orientated dominance to a more expansive style of play.

When Penney departed, the appointment of Foley was greeted with positive feedback by and large from the Munster faithful. Foley was a natural fit to lead Munster in a period where the balance of provincial power had shifted to Leinster with their domineering running rugby under Joe Schmidt. The debut season was promising; Munster went back to core beliefs and emphasize on the pack. The European Cup campaign was disappointing but the Pro 12 final appearance suggested that the squad even though inexperienced would grow in the second season.

Last season was unfortunately a disappointing season for all concerned with Munster Rugby. Foley’s decision to not give JJ Hanrahan an opportunity to stake a claim for the ten jersey irked some supporters (including yours truly on this blog), a position for which Munster struggled massively last season. The inability for the pack and back line to adopt a game plan which exhibited any kind of continuity rested on the coaching ticket. Munster’s financial plight did not help to recruit talent and the fact that Foley did not have any experienced coach to assist in a troubled season was damning; the introduction of Andy Farrell was too little too late for Foley last season.

Foley would have being forgiven not to leave stage left and look for other ventures to pursue but his decision to continue working for Rassie Erasmus in a new look coaching setup this season spoke of a man who had truly immense love for the province, truly immense love for the Munster Rugby club and a truly immense pride for where he was from. It was a noble move considering the demotion from the director role. Perhaps, Foley would have returned to the top Munster managerial coaching job in time and excelled but it is what-ifs now regrettably.

Foley’s international coaching stints with the Wolfhounds and the national side cannot be underestimated. Foley did provide Munster youth an opportunity when in charge of the province. Jack O’Donoghue, Ronan O’Mahoney, Scannell brothers, Johnny Holland were all given debut caps under Axel. CJ Stander as an eight excelled under Foley’s guidance after a slow start to life in the province.

This is a truly devastating day for anyone associated with rugby and sport, where it be with Killaloe, Shannon RFC, Munster and  Ireland. Munster have lost a man whose passion and pride for the province held no bounds; a leader of men whose words resonated in a dressing room, a man who never let anyone down, a man who in time would have climbed back to the director role and right the wrongs of last season.

The ensuing funeral in Limerick and Killaloe this week will be unparalleled. Foley’s loss is immeasurable; the last link between the amateur and professional rugby era of Munster is lost, all too short. Deepest condolences to his family and many friends. Gone but not forgotten.

 

Farewell, farewell
Though lands may meet
May meet my gaze
My gaze where e’re I roam
I shall not find
A spot so fair
As that dear Isle
As that dear Isle to me
It is not that alone it stands
Where all around is fresh and fair
But because, it is my native land
And my home, my home is there
But because, it is my native land
And my home, my home is there

All Ireland Senior Football Final Replay Reflections

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Twenty-fours after the fact. Dublin have retained Sam Maguire. Mayo begin to yet again lip their wounds after a tenth successive All Ireland Senior Football final reversal. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on a replay which will be talked about for some time to come.

Mayo Management Decisions Backfire Enormously

The decision to drop David Clarke instead of Robbie Hennelly was  a massive call. It is a massive call to drop anyone from a starting lineup for a replay, even more so when the player in question plays in goal, a position fundamental in modern day football where kick-out accuracy to win primary possession is paramount. Stephen Rochford post-game tried to justify the selection call stating that Dublin had sussed out the short kick-out strategy adopted by Mayo in the opening  final game. Was Rochford and management team spooked by the Diarmuid Connolly point in the first game where Clarke’s mislaid past hit the Dublin forward on the back before being dispatched for a white flag. Hennelly is a fine keeper but yesterday nerves got the better of him. His first four kick-outs were long but in areas where Dublin numerical advantage was evident. No variation in the kick-out stategy direction and Mayo were suddenly four points down.

Credit to Mayo, they fought back to level matters but the tone of the game had being set. Hennelly was increasingly looking more vulnerable with each pass made; his high delivery to colleagues giving Dublin players plenty of optimism to chase down lost causes. The long range free at the end of the half spoke of a player who was devoid of any tangible confidence and it should not have being a surprise when he spilled the ball for the lead-up to the penalty. Black card saved him for even more anxiety.

The player will need a strong network of family, friends and GAA colleagues to gather around him and pick him up from this disastrous performance. Hennelly’s cameo is more to do with the panic in the Mayo management in their rationale to drop Clarke who after picking the ball out of the net from Connolly’s emphatic penalty was assured with solid ball distribution from the back. A fatal mistake from Mayo management; a clear 1-4 conceded from the decision and on All Ireland final days, you cannot expect to win championships based on monumental judgement call failures.

Dublin middle third distribution key to victory

This is where the final was won ultimately. Mayo had their fair share of possession but middle third distribution to their forward line lacked speed, direction or cohesion. Dublin had their homework done, they allowed the likes of Seamie O’Shea and Tom Parsons to take endless ball into Dublin territory knowing that they lacked the speed of thought and passing range to distribute into the likes of Cillian O’Connor inside in the full forward line. Andy Moran even had to venture far from the full forward line to try to unsettle Dublin tactically but it did not make a difference.

Dublin will believe that their performance was far from perfect but their middle third of Kilkenny, Fenton, MacAuley, Flynn provided tempo and game management when required. Their distribution in the last quarter was simple; quick ball to a Dublin player in space who tended to be super-sub Cormac Costello who dispatched his efforts over the bar. The same was not the case for Mayo who never looked like creating any goalscoring chances in that second half inside. The fact that Cillian O’Connor’s decisive missed free at the death was thirty plus meters out tells you all that you need to know on the ponderous, indecisive attacking movement from Mayo throughout these two contests.

Squad depth wins championships

Despite the colossal mistakes in team selection, Mayo were in contention to win this contest at the death but when Mayo’s back line tired, Dublin were able to launch the likes of Brogan, Costello and MacAuley off the bench to make an impact. Brogan and Costello striking decisive points in the final quarter; the moves leading to those scores were splendidly executed moving Mayo’s defensive this way and that. Costello’s awareness of space was rewarded with a dreamy five minute period where he hit three sweet points to ultimately win this contest. Mayo’s squad depth was exposed. Alan Dillon who was a massive injury doubt summoned for one last effort. Conor O’Shea was ponderous in the half-forward line who replaced Donal Vaughan. Stephen Coen did an admirable job defensively but yet again, it was a distinct lack of firepower options on the Mayo bench which ebbed this fixture away from the Westerners.

Black Card Fiasco

I did not envy Maurice Deegan yesterday; the needle leading into this contest, the media soundbites targeting several players from both sides was needless stuff. However, Deegan did not set the right tone from the first whistle. How John Small stayed on the pitch in the opening period was mind boggling? Black card offense within minutes of the final, several personal fouls in that opening period and yet no card to quell the player’s discipline issues. Cooper and Keegan’s black cards were laughable; the reaction of Mayo and Dublin players for each black card was very unsavory and one has to think that the paper clippings about Lee Keegan leaned heavily on that decision. Cooper should have stayed on if the Laois official thought Small had no case to answer for his black card discretion. It was an incredibly frustrating final to watch; whistle blown too many times to allow a tempo to form in the contest. Leinster official refereeing a final? Surely, Munster or Ulster official would have being the appointment route for this replay. The black card is a joke; needs to be refined to only apply for the third tackle. Tackling is too open to interpretation.

Jim Gavin – Managerial Legend

Two All Ireland’s in a row has set Jim Gavin and this crop of Dublin footballers as one of the best GAA teams in the history of the game. Dublin have a sweeper system with the effective Cian O’Sullivan but their attack minded focus is most welcome in an era where swarming defensive win at all costs football has plighted the sport for too long. Gavin had his critics in the opening final but his decisions to wield the axe in a rational manner was effective and highlighted the lack of control in Mayo’s managerial calls. Gavin provides a calm exterior to the media but his unerring preparation and scouting reports of opposition is sensational. Jim Gavin is the blueprint that every other intercounty manager needs to follow and with the likes of Fenton, Byrne, Costello, Mannion and the mercurial Kilkenny in the panel, this is a nucleus of players who will be winning more Sam Maguire’s in the years to come.

Mayo – Where to from here?

Not much to say at this time. Glorious opportunities spurned against a Dublin side who were there for the taking. Mental blocks both on and off the pitch again conspired Mayo on the biggest day of GAA football. Attacking options need to improve; the overdependency on O’Connor and Moran was evident early doors. O’Shea in the half-forward line showed fleeting attacking glimpses, not enough to get over the line. Kevin McLaughlin is a forward and not a sweeper. Coen is an ideal sweeper player. Time to reflect and with a promising U21 All Ireland winning team this season, several of these players will need to step up next season as the likes of Andy Moran and Alan Dillon consider their futures. Heartbreaking loss but they were the victims of their own downfall.