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Quinlan: Munster will never forget Rassie for delivering fantastic campaign in a traumatic season

The South African director of rugby has pushed his team to excel in impossible circumstances since Anthony Foley’s death.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IN A SEASON of renaissance for Munster Rugby, it’s a day that will never be forgotten.

On 16 October last year, much-loved team coach Anthony Foley died in his sleep while staying at the team hotel in the Paris suburb of Suresnes.

In the aftermath, Rassie Erasmus, who began a three-year stint as Director of Rugby on 1 July, was thrust firmly into the limelight.

The South African’s response was magnificent, saying all of the right things and providing brilliant leadership as Munster slowly emerged from darkness into light.

One of the province’s former heroes, Alan Quinlan, was hugely impressed, and touched, by how Erasmus built the platform for recovery. But Quinlan, a two-time Heineken Cup winner during his playing days, believed that Erasmus was made of the right stuff even before the untimely passing of ‘Axel’.

“He was announced before the end of the season (April 2016),” Quinlan notes.

“I just think the way he handled that whole situation with Anthony, first and foremost, that Anthony was head coach and he was coming in as Director of Rugby effectively, the top job if you like.

“I think the role was created not just to work with the senior team, but also to try and develop players, look after recruitment, and to see if they could get a better pathway for young players coming through.

“He’s renowned for developing young players, he has been in South Africa. He was a great coup for Munster, he didn’t interfere with Anthony, he left him do the coaching, sometimes he wasn’t even out on the training field when the team was training at the start of the season.

He didn’t go in and step on anyone’s toes, he wanted to work with him.

“That’s a great sign of the man himself that he didn’t come in trying to crack the whip and try to change too much.

“He wanted to help and improve Munster, and get them back to where they were before.

“They started to get on really well and Anthony was very comfortable with that whole situation, as it progressed, and he saw that this guy wasn’t come in to push him to one side.

“He allowed him to continue doing what he was doing, he was only there to help so they worked really well together.

Rassie Erasmus and Felix Jones Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Munster started the season really well and you could hear about that confidence coming out from the players, the environment had changed, the mentality had changed and they were a happy group.”

Foley’s death cast a huge pall over not only Munster rugby, but the sport worldwide. And Quinlan says that Erasmus handled the situation “fantastically well.”

He added: “He showed great leadership, he showed great calmness and composure with the players and managed it unbelievably well, that emotion.

“He’ll never be forgotten in Munster for that because he paid huge respect to Anthony in the way he handled that and I think he’s just been fantastic, the players really like him a lot and Jacques Nienaber as well, who came in as defensive coach, they’ve added a lot in a traumatic season.”

Fuelled by emotion, and no little skill, Munster progressed to a Champions Cup semi-final with Saracens, but the eventual champions proved too strong.

Still, there’s silverware up for grabs in the form of the Pro12 and this afternoon, Munster welcome Ospreys to Thomond Park for a last-four clash.

Quinlan says: “Everybody’s hoping for that all-Irish final but semi-finals are tricky positions to be in.

“You’re one step away from that big day out. Hopefully Munster can do it.

“Either way, if they don’t get to the final or win it, it’s been an incredible season for them. The challenge is, next year, can they build on that? And that’s the development you want.

“For Munster, it’s been a fantastic season. It’s been a traumatic season, with Anthony’s passing, but I think from where they were last year, they’ve got huge consistency in the League.

“19 wins is the most that anyone’s had to finish on top of the League.

“It would be great if it was the old scenario where they didn’t have to go into the playoffs but they’ve had a great season.

“They’ve developed a lot of young players and improved a lot from where they were last year.

“To be in the semi-finals, they weren’t there last year, puts them in a great position. It rewards them for a good season.

Alan Quinlan Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Unfortunately, the Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens was a step too far.

“We know how good they are and I think Rassie Erasmus has been pretty honest in his appraisal of where Munster need to get to, to be in the position to challenge for the cup.

“But getting to the semi-finals of the Champions Cup, fantastic, and it will be unfair on them if they don’t win a trophy this year.”

To reach the final, Munster must get past a formidable Ospreys outfit, one highly-rated by former Ireland international and Tipperary native Quinlan.

He said: “They’re playing against an Ospreys side who are very, very dangerous.

“Alun Wyn Jones is going to be back for them, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, a number of guys going on the Lions tour and star players for Wales over the years.

“It’s a big match for them but having it at home, the crowds have come back this year to Thomond Park and rewarded the players for their efforts as well.

“When I criticised Munster last year, I think it was down to the fact that they lacked that bit of bite, that bit of passion, that pride in the jersey.

“Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong, but they’ve certainly showed it in bucketfuls this year, pride and what the jersey means to them.

“They may not end up winning it but they’ve got to focus on the Ospreys and put themselves in with a chance of winning it by getting to the final.

“This Ospreys side are dangerous but they’re in a really good position.”

 Alan Quinlan and Topaz are encouraging people from across Ireland to go the extra mile for their local community to be in with a chance of winning up to €10,000 for a club of their choice. A total of €200,000 in cash prizes will be up for grabs over the course of the next 12 weeks. For more information on how to enter, visit: playorpark.ie/cash-for-clubs

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