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19th Oct 2016

Anthony Foley would have been proud of Peter O’Mahony today but he wouldn’t have believed the circumstances either

Tough day in Limerick

Patrick McCarry

Everyone was watching the faces of Peter O’Mahony and Rassie Erasmus as they faced the press in Munster’s recently opened High Performance Centre. I had a view obscured by TV cameras so was left watching their feet.

Erasmus, Munster’s director of rugby, is four months with the province and in the midst of a tragedy that will take some getting over. His feet were constantly moving – jittery but trying to cope.

O’Mahony, Munster’s captain, followed every single Anthony Foley move, and play, from the age of eight and was lucky enough to be coached by his hero at his home province. His feet were planted – bracing himself for the worst.

Foley is no longer with his – he passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning – but his name, memory and legacy will linger for the rest of the season. Beyond, too, but Munster are just looking to get through the next day, next match. Get through it.

It feels wrong being here. Munster are supposed to be preparing for their second Champions Cup game with Glasgow. There are supposed to be 10 or 11 journalists asking about the ‘Thomond factor’ and whether Munster can escape their group.

Instead, the briefing room at Munster headquarters is jammed. Every Irish outlet is here. Sky Sports, BBC and the Daily Telegraph are here too. This story – this loss – is international.

“It all seems a bit trivial,” O’Mahony admits.

For a man like O’Mahony, a man who wells up at the sheer mention of ‘passion’, dismissing the importance of a European Cup rugby game is massive.

Peter O'Mahony 19/10/2016

Erasmus is the more polished of the two but there is a sheen to his eyes. He is the guy that has to step up and face the press. Still, this is the last place in the world he wants to be.

O’Mahony is shaken. He is only 27. He knows life in rugby does not go on forever – in the last year both Felix Jones and Johnny Holland have seen injury and medical advice combine to end their Munster dreams.

This is different though. His coach has died. But there’s more to it. His hero too has proved all too mortal, at the age of 42.

Such is the intensity with which O’Mahony stares at the table below him that it takes a brave person to put the first question his way. No-one wants to be here but we all have to get through it; be as professional as possible.

O’Mahony utters three words before pausing. He manages another two, “I’m sorry”, and you can’t help but feel for him.

Erasmus answers for his captain but O’Mahony is thinking of Foley. He does not want to leave this press briefing without paying tribute. Foley was the reason he became a No.8. It was a position he played all the way through the underage ranks.

O’Mahony raises his head and draws a deep breath moments later. It is his signal that he will take questions again. Nearly every word hits home but these stood out:

“The amount we’ve lost now that he’s gone is incredible. The rugby knowledge, the brain.

“The man, the friend, the coach, the brother that we’ve lost. It’s mad.”

With that, O’Mahony’s head plunges again.

He will have the toughest job of his rugby life in the coming days; to try get his teammates’ heads right for Saturday. To get his own head right.

Erasmus fields the last couple of questions and concedes it is beyond strange to look around in training and not see Foley there. He would understand if any of his players or coaches requested to be given Saturday off to grieve on their own. So far, no-one has done so. Everyone will be there.

With that, the broadcast and embargoed section comes to a close but a further 10 minutes with the written press lie ahead.

Erasmus readjusts in his seat. O’Mahony exhales and takes a drink of water. His head drops again.

His feet are still planted to the spot. Still bracing himself. Tougher days ahead.

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