Munster team manager Niall O'Donovan, right, with the team's late head coach Anthony Foley
A SEASON like no other. On Saturday, Munster will return to the Aviva Stadium, venue for the late Anthony Foley's last game in charge of the province before his sudden death last October which numbed a nation.
It is sure to be an emotional occasional for all at Munster, but none more so than team manager Niall O'Donovan who had known Anthony Foley from the time he was a regular attendee in the Shannon RFC dressing room with his father Brendan as a young child.
How much did Anthony's death impact on the squad?
Niall O'Donovan: “"It affected everyone differently. It was just a horrible day.
“In fairness to everyone here, the way they grouped around one another and supported one another, the way the whole organisation of Munster as a family got together from within the staff and the people who work in Thomond Park and Musgrave Park, the supporters were brilliant at the time as well.
"Guys were fairly rock bottom. To get that support from everyone around was immense. To get them to where they are now, it has been a combined effort by everyone else.
"In the short period of time they worked together Rassie (Erasmus) and Axel got close. They worked well together, the whole coaching group was working so well together.
"For him (Rassie) to see the out-pouring of emotion for a guy that he had only known for three months really was huge.
“To stand in front of the media and do all the work he did at the time was incredible. It is incredible for anyone to be able to handle it. He did a super job in fairness to him.
"I would have played with Axel's father Brendan. Axel was around the dressing room the same way as you see the kids around the dressing room now. I knew him going back to then.
"I was just finishing with Shannon when he arrived on the scene. He was just coming out of school, coming out of St Munchin's. As a senior coach with Shannon, I would have dealt with Axel from the time he was 18-19.
“I was lucky enough to work with him in a Munster team and an Irish team as well. I have been there or thereabouts with him for a long, long time.”
What was it like having to play the Glasgow Champions Cup game a day after Anthony Foley's funeral?
NO'D: "It was an amazing day, just the whole build-up, coming back from the funeral and going out to do a captain's run straight away from the graveside, just to try and get guys focused.
“You knew the players wanted to do well, but you still had no idea what way they were if things went against them at the start and they did.
"Earslie (Keith Earls) was sent off. They were already in a hard place, but when they went down to 14 men, it showed the character of the guys, character of everyone, also well as showing what it meant to Earlsie as well.
"You could see how upset he was. They were all feeling that, but to channel it into doing what they did, you couldn't praise them enough, they were immense. You would be so proud of everyone, proud of the crowd.
"Listen, it is going to be an emotional day on Saturday, there is no doubt about that. If we were to win this thing it would be a super season.
“There is no doubt about that. What they have done already has been super, so to get a bit of silverware and say that Axel helped us do this because he coached us at the start would be a super way to finish the season."
How much of an impact has the new training base at UL had on Munster this season?
NO'D: "I think it has been the major thing. We have had a lot of things. We've had a change in coaches, we've had Axel's death and we've had this (new High Performance Centre), it has probably been a combination of all three.
"There is no doubt about it, the coaching staff coming in, they haven't changed a whole lot, but when they worked with Axel at the very start, they worked with Axel on what he was doing and just tried to reinforce different things and get that bit of confidence into the side that was lacking from last year.
"To me everyone training together is the key to the whole thing. We've gotten away with it I'd say in previous years, we probably had a more mature team back when it all started in the late 1990s, early 2000s.
“You had a mature team of guys and that team more or less stayed together for a long period. They didn't really notice that they weren't training together as often as they should have been.
"It was when this new bunch came in, guys coming from the Academies, they just needed more time to gel and more time to get confidence in one another and they got that here.
"I did the trek from Limerick to Cork for training in the late 1990s, early 2000s and got a breather for eight years before coming back into the set-up. I would have been in Cork two to three times every week when I came back. It just got monotonous really. It was the same for players.
"Guys were coming up here, doing there one day in Limerick and you could see all they wanted to do was get back on the road and vica versa for the Limerick lads.”
That win over Ulster in Belfast in late October, a week after the Champions Cup victory over Glasgow, was huge for the province?
NO'D: "When you are dealing with a lot of young guys you can put all the systems you like in place and whatever but they have to take chances as well, go out and go after games as well, have the confidence to do that and have the confidence in one another to do that.
"That had been building. It was chipped away at last year. There was a lot of negativity and all that does is drive the young fellas back again.
"When they are reading on social media and people are . . . whatever. . . . so to put the wins together like that and to win the the way they did, Ulster with a drop goal in the last minute and a similar story in Glasgow, you can see them growing and we have all said this, what happened them in Paris - nothing like that will ever happen them again - or you would hope nothing like it will happen to them again - so if they can get over that, they can get over going five points behind.
"They will look at the hurdle they had back then and will say we got ourselves through this.
“With five of 10 minutes to go behind a score behind is nothing to them. They will still go for it. They may not always win it, but they will still have the confidence to go after it.”
How much are you enjoying the role of team manager?
NO'D: "I love being involved with the players. It probably keeps me young. Listen, I have done this all my life. I did it as an amateur.
“Going from the coaching side into the management side made it easier for me because I knew what the coaches need. I know what the players need.
“My role in all of this is to make sure that everything both on and off the field runs smoothly."
What was is like when the team was struggling to qualify for the Champions Cup last season?
NO'D: "People (Fans) have an opinion and they want to give you that opinion. Sometimes you take it and sometimes you try and avoid it. It's part and parcel of the role.
“We will never be in a position where we will keep everyone happy. Even when we are winning, we won't be winning in the right style or we won't be doing something, or something will be wrong.
“I have learned that right through the years, from playing to coaching to Shannon, Munster and Ireland. You will never be 100% right even if you win all the games.”
What would winning Saturday's Pro12 final with the Scarlets mean to Munster?
NO'D: "I was just going through the list above. We were a month on holiday's this time last year. We had been fighting to get into Europe. So much has happened in the year, there has been highs, there have been the worst lows you can ever have.
"I would say to win this would probably be one of the greatest ever. To actually come from where he came from last year - trying to get into sixth spot to make Europe - end up in a Champions Cup group where we were told we were the whipping boys in the group, to go through probably the Pro12 with the highest points that any Munster side has ever accumulated has been so far a huge achievement.
But we need something to show for it at the end of it and to win this on Saturday we would have something to show. To repeat what they did this year next season would be incredible. They have lost five games out of 30-odd in a season. Managing that and trying to say are we going to beat that next year, it is going to be hard. It is going to be very, very hard.”