Axel's Army

It feels like something special is happening with Munster and Thomond Park again

Last night was another unforgettable occasion in the Limerick stadium.

THERE’S SOMETHING SPECIAL in the air at Thomond Park these days.

Four wins in a row have brought optimism and energy to Munster, although it’s not just those fine results that are creating this feeling of renewal.

It remains to be seen if the vibe is a long-term trend or simply a short-term pulling together in the province, but right now the place is fizzing with enthusiasm and belief.

The Maori All Blacks perform the Haka Munster face the haka at Thomond Park last night. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The incredible win over Glasgow in the Champions Cup the weekend after Anthony Foley passed away had seen the connection between Munster supporters and their players spark like the old days.

Last night – Munster’s second game in Thomond since ‘Axel’ died – with rain pouring down and a talented bunch of Maori All Blacks in town, that same bond was highly apparent.

The weather conditions could easily have dampened the atmosphere or convinced Munster fans to stay at home or in the pub, but they turned out to fill Thomond Park. Right now, these Munster fans feel it is their duty be there in numbers.

The timing of this fixture couldn’t have been more ideal and you get the impression that Munster would play again in Thomond Park next weekend at the drop of a hat. They will want to bottle this atmosphere and keep it forever.

How could players not be inspired by the show of support their fans are delivering at the moment? A full house helped to drive the likes of Darren O’Shea, Robin Copeland, Andrew Conway, Jaco Taute, Conor Oliver, the Scannell brothers and many others to exceptional performances.

Of course, this Munster squad has their own in-built motivation right now; doing it for Axel. Again, the performance last night was one the legendary number eight would have loved.

Extreme defensive pressure on the Maori All Blacks yielded turnovers that led directly to tries from the scintillating Darren Sweetnam, the intelligent Ronan O’Mahony, and a penalty try.

Ian Keatley and Brian Scott celebrate Ian Keatley and Brian Scott celebrate. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Turnover ball and counter-attack is a core part of New Zealand rugby, but it was Munster who pounced more clinically last night.

Fittingly, Munster’s first try of the night was at maul time. Axel’s old hunting ground. The aggressive James Cronin and inspirational captain Tommy O’Donnell led the Munster pack in shearing off to the right, paving the way for Niall Scannell to dot down.

The southern province were direct with their own use of possession, although that does not mean they simply ran into defenders. Instead, there were subtle tip-on passes close to the line, deft inside pops from forwards, rapid passes off the deck, and the clever use of arcs from Duncan Williams close to the rucks.

All of this is what Foley had been driving Munster to achieve on the pitch more consistently, and Rassie Erasmus has taken up the job of fulfilling that desire in his position of director of rugby.

“This is how Axel wanted us to play,” Erasmus said again last night.

The South African has been impressive since his arrival during the summer. He comes across as firm, direct, confident, positive and clear. His messages are basic and easy to understand, and not just with the media.

He brings that clarity to his players too, allowing them to focus their aggression and work rate into a simple game plan.

The Munster team celebrate winning Munster sing Stand Up and Fight post-match. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Off the pitch, Erasmus has been recruiting well and it appears that Munster’s capture of the former SARU man, with the IRFU’s David Nucifora involved, will prove to be a stroke of genius.

The most important thing about Erasmus is that he understands Munster must channel the spirit of Foley.

Away from the squad and coaching staff, Munster’s supporters must take credit for their part in what looks like a resurgence. These fans have faced some flak in recent seasons for the declining attendances in Thomond Park, but they are still among the best in the world.

What will excite the province most of all are the returning faces in the stand, and the new ones from Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Tipperary, Kerry and Clare.

Last night, groups of old friends who hadn’t been to the stadium for years were reunited to stand in the rain on the terraces and test out their memory of the words of The Fields. They huddled into the Shannon and UL Bohs bars afterwards to laugh about good old times and dream of bright days to come.

Fathers and mothers introduced their youngest family members to the Munster clann, and perhaps those kids will have seen something special in the events at Thomond Park last night.

Few will forget the sight of the Maori All Blacks paying tribute to Foley in truly unique fashion.

A black jersey emblazoned with the letters ‘AF,’ a chilling and poignant haka with the rain teeming down in huge teardrops, even the Maori replacements and management joining in with that haka from the sideline.

Ash Dixon presents Anthony Foley's children Dan and Tony with a jersey with his initials on it Ash Dixon presents Dan and Tony Foley with a jersey a Maori All Blacks jersey with 'AF' on the back. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

And then the presentation of the jersey to Tony and Dan Foley, a beautiful moment that clearly means much more than any rugby game.

The pride of Killaloe, honoured fittingly once again.

Foley’s spirit is everywhere in Thomond Park at present and Munster will want that to remain the case for years and years to come.

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