Foley: Homegrown and hungry

Date published: October 15 2014

Saturday 4 October was a seminal moment in Irish rugby because it heralded the coming of age of Anthony Foley as a professional coach.

Last Saturday was a good day for Irish rugby. And I’m not talking about the occasion that witnessed 40,000 rugby fanatics see Munster demolish inter-provincial rivals Leinster at a raucous Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

No, Saturday 4 October 2014 was a seminal moment in Irish rugby because it heralded the coming of age of Anthony Foley as a professional rugby coach.

This season (Foley’s first as head coach following the exit of former Canterbury boss Rob Penney) had started less than auspiciously, with the reds suffering two cataclysmic losses in September’s Pro12 matches, both at Munster’s famous Thomond Park citadel.

Those ignominious defeats (against Edinburgh and the Ospreys respectively), suggested that Foley’s tenure as boss was not going to be as triumphant has had been initially assumed when he was announced as head coach at the tail end of last season.

It is fair to say that those losses (although not earth shattering in themselves), had set alarm bells ringing within the rugby heartlands of Cork and Limerick. Suddenly, the brave new dawn that yielded an indigenous coach in the most rugby obsessed part of Ireland, was being openly called into question.

But why is all of this so important? Coaches lose games all the time, and it’s certainly not uncommon for a rookie head coach to experience difficulty in the heady opening days of his managerial reign. But Foley’s performance as Munster head coach has assumed an extra significance as the former Irish number eight is carrying the hopes of not just the province that he served with such distinction, but an entire nation.

You see, there are great expectations within Irish rugby circles that the Limerick man will finally buck the prevailing trend for Irish professional franchises to opt for cultured, cosmopolitan coaches from the southern hemisphere.

As well as national supremo Joe Schmidt there has been a proliferation of southern hemisphere coaches plying their trade within the Irish game in recent seasons. From Schmidt, Michael Chieka, and Matt O’Connor at Leinster to Matt Williams and Mark Anscombe at Ulster, and even Tony McGahan and the polarising Penney at Munster; coaches from south of the equator have been ubiquitous within the Irish game.

The predominance of non-national coaches within the Irish game is somewhat surprising, given that the IRFU has a long established policy of promoting and encouraging local coaching talent.

The difficulty is that the popular mood has been that there is simply a dearth of native coaches of sufficient quality available, and that for Irish sides to excel, it is preferable to look outside home shores. And who can argue with the logic?

Leinster’s antipodean mentors have delivered three Heineken Cups, and Schmidt’s triumph in the 2014 Six Nations ended a frustrating period of national underachievement.

Yet, for all the erudition and sophistication that these great southern hemisphere coaches have brought to the Irish game, there remained an underlying feeling that native coaching talent was perhaps being a little under-used; and that surely the plethora of former Irish professional players cum coaches working in rugby today must have something worthwhile to offer?

Enter the gritty and redoubtable Foley, who is the personification of everything that is great about Munster rugby. The former Irish number eight is steeped in Limerick rugby tradition. The Shannon club man, the son of Munster great Brendan Foley, won two Heineken Cups in Declan Kidney’s legendary Munster teams; the first of those as captain. His rugby pedigree in the province is unequalled (Foley’s sister Rosie has represented her country as well).

Following a successful stint as Munster forwards coach under Penney, and a brief secondment to the national team; Foley was the natural choice to replace Penney as Thomond supremo.

While his Kiwi predecessor divided opinion with his quest to expand the Munster skills base, Foley is an exponent of the old-school, and someone who is rooted in the truest traditions of pragmatic Munster rugby.

Once Penney departed the Thomond hot seat, the good will emanating in Foley’s direction was palpable. And given the scarcity of Irish coaches in prominent positions within the game, the Munster stalwart had become the standard bearer for all Irish coaching aspirants.

That is why the men in red’s early season jitters had evoked such concern. But the sheer dynamism of Munster’s victory over their provincial rivals, confirmed that the Foley era had arrived with a vengeance.

For Munster not only defeated their compatriots last Saturday, they absolutely blitzed them with a glorious exhibition of attrition-based, power rugby. Everything about their blistering performance, from the slick rolling maul, to the territorial kicking game, and fierce driving around the fringes, had their head coach written all over it.

This was Limerick rugby at its most magnificent. Although there is still a long way in the Foley revolution, there was enough evidence on show at the Aviva to convince onlookers that the local management is headed in the right direction.

And with last week’s confirmation that Neil Doak has followed Foley in assuming the head coach title at Ulster, there is at last an indication that Irish coaches have a place in the summit of the professional game.

For that, all Irish rugby fans should be grateful. It is safe to conclude that if Anthony Foley can’t make the grade, then no-one can.