Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post
Last week was a busy one on both the local and European rugby scene with the first round of games in this season’s European competitions and a full domestic league programme.
However, both were overshadowed by the untimely death of Munster legend Anthony Foley, who died in the team’s Paris hotel before they were due to face Racing 92.
At 42, Foley was carving out an impressive coaching reputation after a career spent solely with the Munster province. It was desperately sad news.
The tributes from around the rugby world were heartfelt and showed the respect the game had for Foley.
Most rugby fans will have viewed Foley as the energy and drive behind the Irish province he played for throughout his career.
Respect stemmed from the incredible loyalty and passion he showed for his team both as a player and more recently as a coach.
The Munster side he captained was synonymous with the Heineken Cup, with incredible victories and the heartbreak of near misses proving to be one of the great rugby stories as they continually got to the latter stages of the tournament, only to be pipped at the post.
The “miracle match” against Gloucester went down in rugby folklore.
In the end, he and his team did win the Heineken Cup, and I think rugby fans everywhere saw that as a fitting reward for the men of Munster and their captain Foley.
To me, that Munster story epitomised what was great about the Heineken Cup.
The connection between the team and its fans came from the fact the majority of its players were from the province and knew what and who they were playing for when they pulled on the shirt. As a man of Shannon, Foley epitomised that.
I am not sure that we will see that kind of story again.
The change from the Heineken Cup to the new Champions Cup has robbed the competition of its soul.
Teams that were identifiable by their traditions and nationalities have now given way to entities defined by the size of their budget.
The great rivalries developing between teams from different countries was akin to the tribal passion that elevates the Six Nations above just being another competition.
The greed of certain clubs who believe they should have more of an ever-expanding pot to balance their inability to control player wage inflation, has reduced the appeal of the new competition.
An open tournament where there were numerous potential winners each year has given way to something akin to the Champions League in football, where only those with financial muscle have any chance of success.
And those clubs will never produce passion and drama like we saw from Munster between 2000 and 2010.
With Foley at its core, the game owes him a sincere sense of gratitude.
Away from the sad news of last weekend, locally last Saturday’s result and performance from Preston Grasshoppers was just what the doctor ordered.
The home side got away to a fast start and came home strongly to record a satisfying 51-17 win over Hinckley.
They were made to work hard in between by a resilient Hinckley side who, in the third quarter of the game, threatened to make Hoppers endure a nervous final quarter.
But a strong defensive effort from the home side repelled 10 minutes of constant pressure and with it broke the visitors’ belief.
To then turn the tables and run in three well-worked tries was a hugely positive statement from the Lightfoot Green outfit.
In last week’s column I had criticised a lack of intensity in defence during the defeat at Otley, with the defensive line speed a disappointment.
But last Saturday it was much improved with head coach Garth Dew no doubt hoarse by the end of the game, such was his vocal encouragement for Hoppers to keep their line speed and to apply pressure to the opposition.
Hoppers possess plenty of pace and I thought the back three of Ollie Viney, Conor Trueman and debutant Cam Robinson were a threat throughout.
They gave the home side a cutting edge that the Midlanders couldn’t cope with.
Such was their impact, the visiting defence were clearly worried by the ball going wide and that led to gaps in midfield that were ruthlessly exploited by the Hoppers centres Woof and Crosley.
There was another tidy performance from on-loan scrum-half Jack Harrison, whilst the pack appeared to have a better balance than at Otley with more mobility and pace.
The handling of the forwards was also a real positive with the final try a real gem created by the front five.
There are still areas to work on but confidence was flowing by the end of the game and it is to be hoped that this performance can be a springboard for the rest of the season.