I had it all planned out. I was going to write an article about Donald Trump and the US Presidential election today. With absolutely no disrespect intended to the controversial Republican candidate, events compel me to write about a real man instead. A man of modesty, integrity and humble achievement. I’m writing about Anthony “Axel” Foley instead.
Munster head coach Foley passed away last night in a Paris hotel ahead of Munster’s Champions Cup fixture against Racing 92. Sometimes news hits you that stops you in your tracks. The devastating, heartbreaking news that Foley had passed away was in that mould. The rugby community is in mourning at the premature passing of one of its own. In coming to terms with this awful news, we must remember that this is a personal tragedy. Anthony leaves behind his wife Olive and two young children. He was just 42 years old. With any sudden passing, there’s always a feeling of numbness and utter disbelief. Incomprehension. How can something so dreadful and unpredictable happen? While it’ll surely takes us all a very long time to make any sense of this tragedy, it’s only fitting that we take time to remember Anthony Foley, the legend.
Who was Anthony Foley? Foley was an Irish rugby icon. The son of Munster legend Brendan Foley, the former Irish number eight captained his beloved province to its maiden Heineken Cup victory over Biarritz in 2006. The pictures from that win are so poignant today; Munster’s captain the vision of pride and happiness as he collected the trophy. After all the years of heartache and near misses, how apt that it was Foley who held the cherished trophy aloft in Cardiff. Like his good friend and teammate Keith Wood, Foley was a native of Killaloe in County Clare. A talented sportsman, the young Foley grew up playing several codes-as is often the way in Munster-but it was inevitable that rugby would capture his heart. Anthony was part of the great Shannon side that dominated Irish club rugby at the tail end of the 1990s. It was here that he first came to my attention, as part of one of the greatest back rows ever to emerge from the Irish club game: Quinlan, Foley and Halvey. They were an awesome combination, the bedrock of the Shannon side that won four AIL titles in a row.
One of the first club games I attended while studying in Dublin was St Mary’s v Shannon in Templeville Road. The Templeogue side had a good pack in those days. Trevor Brennan was in the thick of it on the blindside, a real hard man who was an extremely good back rower to boot. Big Steve Jameson was the captain, if memory serves me correctly. Another beast of a player. My abiding memory of that day was how little dominance the St Mary’s pack got. This was a superb St Mary’s team (Denis Hickie lined up on the wing), but nobody dominated that Shannon team in those days. They were just too good. This was the 1997/98 season-the Thomond Park men were at their peak then. And a young Anthony Foley was central to their dominance.
Foley gained his first international cap in 1995 in what was then the Five Nations. Test recognition strangely eluded him for a few seasons before he was recalled by Warren Gatland in 2000. He was a mainstay on Eddie O’Sullivan’s team for the next few seasons, accumulating 62 caps in the process. O’Sullivan always spoke very highly of Foley and clearly regarded the Shannon man as a very clever rugby player; one of his pivotal men. Foley wasn’t the most dynamic of number eights and didn’t carry as much ball as, say, his Leinster peer Victor Costello. You never saw him claiming that much ball in the lineout either. Yet for all that, there was no doubt that Foley was a tremendous rugby player. A man for the trenches. A bit like former England flanker Richard Hill, the Munster back rower did so much unseen work and revelled in the unheralded graft that his position demanded. He was invariably in the right place at the right time and could always be relied upon to make crucial, match winning tackles when needed.
Anthony Foley was the ultimate leader. A man of few words, Munster’s talisman led by example and set an uncompromising standard that his teammates were bound to follow. Anthony was old-school. Fashioned in the amateur and semi-professional environs of the AIL, he nonetheless seamlessly made the transition to professionalism through hard work and incredible mental toughness. Just like his Shannon club-mate Mick Galwey, Foley not only survived amateurism but was part of the core group that set the standards at Thomond Park at the start of the professional era. He was undoubtedly a really hard man, but Anthony was so much more than that. He was a totem, a winner, a captain, an inspiration. Someone who may not have been Munster’s most glamorous player, but was always the most valuable player.
I didn’t know Anthony Foley, but I had the pleasure of brushing shoulders with him a couple of times. I remember covering the 2015 Pro 12 final for Planet Rugby at Ravenhill. Foley’s Munster were well beaten by Glasgow that day, but Anthony didn’t flinch from facing the assembled hacks afterwards. Typical of the man, Foley answered the media’s questions with candour and humour. Despite his obvious disappointment, Foley fronted up in his forthright and accessible manner. True Munster honesty. It was the same when his Munster side defeated Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium last season. Admittedly, performances had been decidedly mixed since Foley assumed the head coach mantle in 2014, but it’s extremely unfair to lay all failings on a man who’s Munster through and through. For all that, Foley never shied away from his own mistakes and could be very honest in highlighting aspects that needed to be improved. Therefore, we must be fair and acknowledge Axel’s immense role in rebuilding a province going through a challenging and transitional time. Change is never easy and you have to admire those who have the balls to take on a job knowing it’s going to be tough. That’s the definition of character.
Much was made of Anthony’s de facto demotion following the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as Munster Director of Rugby. However, Munster’s decent start to the season indicates that the two men have been working well together and were in the process of forming a formidable coaching partnership. I heard a journalist discuss recently how relaxed Axel looked this season compared to last term, suggesting that Erasmus’s arrival had the desired effect of taking the pressure off Foley. One of the saddest elements of Anthony’s premature passing is the feeling that he was only getting started in his coaching career. In rugby terms, this man had so much more to offer. How devastating that we’ve lost him. This is a monumental loss for Irish rugby. I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for Anthony Foley. In fact, he was the subject of my first bog on these pages. Little did I know then, he would be gone less than six months later. How awful. How unbelievable. How tragic. Such is the fragility and fleetingness of life. Knowing life’s innate shortness doesn’t make it any easier to bear, however. Sometimes the transience of life is too cruel for words. Goodbye Anthony Foley. Rugby legend, Munster hero, family man. Gone way too soon.