Last March sent a sporting curve ball which life can often summon spinning this way. Parochial, tribal tendencies are the fabric of what stitches the GAA together. For those of us exposed to the association at a young age, its influence can be all consuming. Some might say to the point of addiction. They may not be far wrong.
A good few years back now, local loyalties were forgotten for a day in order to attain a fix. Ventures were made across county boundaries. There was method to what may have appeared madness. Or more pointedly, a connection. As one of our most celebrated sons was guiding a faction in the other territory. Successfully so as well.
Bindings were even tighter nigh on eight months ago. Remarkable people can persuade a body to do remarkable things. Even up to and including plumping for an entity from the other side. It was said somewhere that whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
Down Shannon side, they didn’t destroy them as much as unify them in almost indescribable grief following the passing of Anthony Foley. Few would have uttered dissent had what turned out by their European Champions Cup opener been deferred. Yet the sense always was that such wasn’t ever going to be countenanced. Sport is so much an intrinsic part of Irish life, down south rugby is their very life’s blood.
Out in Thomond was exactly where anyone connected with Munster rugby needed to be. The game itself would be their catharsis. Those referred to being the entirety of the rugby fraternity around the globe. Ballyboden’s momentous achievement of last spring is recalled purely as a divide was crossed to lend support to one of our own steering the good ship St Enda’s.
‘Axel’s untimely passing temporarily suspended whatever divides segregate the oval ball devotees. Every sport needs their rivalries to add to the enthral thereof. That between Munster and Leinster was among the most bubbly anywhere in any sport for a long time. Thus, seeing Leo Cullen’s charges bedecked in red before their game in France was perhaps the most demonstrable essence of the esteem in which the fallen hero was held.
Gut feeling always was that, far from the match being called off, those who had lost their commander in chief would deliver a performance for the ages. Even allowing for such inclinations, however, very shortly after the maelstrom had erupted in one of sport’s most evocative fields, texts whirred back and forth pondering “Who writes their scripts?”
On such days are immense characters minted. He whom they mourned had been the fulcrum of so many such occasions. I recall the “Miracle Match” when they had to win by four tries and 27 points to qualify for the knockout stages of what was then – and to many of us will always be – the Heineken Cup. Reflecting following the former skipper settling sail to the isle above, Frankie Sheahan recounted the dismay among his own troops when Killaloe’s finest called a particular execution plan to be enacted following a line out. Regardless of the fact that up to that point whenever it was deployed it had never worked. Big man made the big call on the big day. Nailed it too. There’s leadership – and Foley – in a nutshell.
The posthumous tribute put on by his erstwhile charges demanded similar generals. Step forward Tyler Bleyandaal. Now, given the almost incomprehensible brilliance displayed collectively by those of red hue, any one of them could reasonably have been afforded highest individual commendation.
To witness the Christchurch native exude such control from fly half scented of a throwback. Maybe a shade over excitedly in terms of Ronan O’Gara at his peak. Recollection was more vivid of the likes of John Langford and Jim Williams and Doug Howlett and Lifeimi Maffi and Rua Tipoki and BJ Botha – decorated stars from afar whom became Munster by grace of God, if the well travelled flags are to be believed!
Amidst the tumult which preceded kick off, visiting pundits pondered whether the enormity of the day would overwhelm or inspire those grieving. Bleyandaal’s incisive dissection of the Glasgow line answered that fairly lively. Fate’s contribution to the event was to put Rory Scannell on the end of the move which culminated in the resident’s final five point haul.
In so doing, the flame headed centre demonstrated the promise there is afoot for the southern province. Developments which the dear departed coach was well aware were already under way. They must, and will, now be carried on in his honour. Assurance of his place in the pantheon of and legacy within rugby is guaranteed. What was perhaps most telling was the reaction to Anthony’s death outside of his arena of excellence.
It is fair to say that it was hardly coincidence that President Michael D. Higgins was in Thomond Park on the day in question. Nor were some of the other sporting developments elsewhere around that time. On the morning of the Foley funeral, it was noted that JP McManus had a horse – trained by Enda Bolger in Limerick – called Stand Up And Fight declared to run the following day in Punchestown. Of course it won.
Even as far away as Portugal, there was a bit of a Munster tint. Padraig Harrington, golf’s greatest exponent of standing up and fighting, recorded a remarkable victory thence. His father Paddy haled from the Rebel County. For a time, Anthony Foley’s spirit was palpable everywhere. In ways, that will eternally be so.