Monday 24 October 2016

Foley has left behind a perfectly formed template for future generations of Munster people to aspire to

John Daly

Published 18/10/2016 | 02:30

Munster captain Anthony Foley lifts the Heineken Cup at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, in 2006. Photo: David Davies/PA
Munster captain Anthony Foley lifts the Heineken Cup at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, in 2006. Photo: David Davies/PA

In Munster when it comes to sport, everything is personal, regardless of code. Whether it's GAA or rugby, this is a province where geographical sporting divisions are blurred by the bloodlines of club and family, where the shape of the ball comes second to the mindset of those who chase it.

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The ethos of what the jersey means in this part of the world was neatly summed up by Brian Cody after last month's All-Ireland hurling final: "We win together, we lose together, and today we lost together." No argument, no excuses.

This is not an ethos confined to any particular dressing room, but one borne fully as the price of pride by every supporter from nippers to pensioners.

When Anthony Foley exited the field of dreams without warning on Sunday, the void was felt by every person who ever laced a pair of boots to challenge themselves at whatever beautiful game they live for.

Moss Keane, another departed legend who no doubt stands waiting, glass in hand, to welcome 'Axel' into the Heavenly Hall of Champions, once described the difference between Munster rugby and anywhere else as "being available to your supporters through good times and bad - there is nowhere to hide, even if you wanted to".

It is a sentiment echoed by many who have worn the red jersey - the only acclaim or criticism that ever really matters being that voiced by the patron who proves his loyalty coming through the turnstiles week in, week out.

In an inclusiveness that extends across all social stratas, Munster rugby is a red stain that incites equal pride across deprived urban territories like Moyross and Togher as it does in affluent strongholds like Castletroy and Douglas. While Leinster hearts beat to a largely southside rhythm dictated by the exclusive precincts buttressing the Aviva Stadium, it's not wrong to opine that Munster's electorate encompasses a wider, more democratic swathe of humanity.

As an example of what Munster parents would likely wish their offspring to aspire to, Axel Foley has left a perfectly formed template in place for future generations. Growing up in the shadow of his father Brendan, who played in the iconic Munster team who beat the All Blacks in 1978, it was little wonder Foley the younger would follow in the family tradition.

From captaining St Munchin's College's Senior Cup team and onwards to integral roles with Shannon and Ireland, he excelled at his calling as only the chosen, passionate few are blessed to.

While the tributes that will flow for months from now will likely headline his raising of Munster's first Heineken Cup in 2006, there are many who will remember him for the far less visible resilience displayed when the going got rough and that familiar Munster magic was missing.

If any youngster wants a perfect example of grace in adversity, let them look to his resolute stance when asked to share the coaching duties last summer. If there was inner turmoil, and, being human, there surely was, he subsumed it for the greater good of the jersey.

Watching his elegance in front of the news cameras, I remembered my own rugby days, and the advice imparted to me by a kindly Jesuit after a particularly crushing under-14s defeat: "Never forget, it is by the grace you display in defeat as well as victory you will be remembered."

For the modern generation, all Munster legends derive from that famous victory over the All Blacks in 1978. And why not - it was, after all, a victory without quibble, excuses or luck. New Zealand photographer Peter Bush, who covered numerous tours, recounted a particular memory in his book, 'Who Said It's Only a Game?': "The great New Zealand prop Gary Knight said to me later: 'We could have played them for a fortnight and we still wouldn't have won'. And he was right."

Thirty years later, the sides squared off again in November 2008 to inaugurate the new Thomond Stadium. "This was one of those sporting occasions which transcends a game and makes bolder statements about humanity," observed Kiwi journalist Martin Moodie on a night when Munster lost by a whisker.

"If any Kiwis reading this bump into a Munster man or woman in 2011 during the next Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, invite them back into your home. Tell them you were moved by the respect they showed your nation, your culture, your rugby team. Tell them that the Munster class of 2008 - a supposedly 'second string' team - was every bit as heroic as their proud predecessors of 1978. Tell them that Munster lost only on the scoreboard but won everywhere that it mattered most - in the hearts, minds and affections of all."

The shock of Anthony's passing recalled the same bombshell emotions of Jonah Lomu's last November - except much, much worse. In the legendary Kiwi's case, there had at least been the signpost of serious health problems to prepare us, but for Axel no warning of any kind, only the abrupt, harsh newsfeed scrolling across the TV screen that needed repeated readings to absorb its full import.

The shock was twofold - first the anguished reality of a youthful next-door hero lifted forever from the field of play, followed by the grim universal comprehension of the slender thread from which we all dangle. "It didn't make any sense yesterday, it doesn't make any sense today," said his childhood friend, Keith Wood, in a sentiment strangling all of us.

Like his father before him, Anthony Foley played his part in carrying that Munster torch with passion and pride through thick and thin. In the days ahead, there will be many epitaphs for a man who was clearly as loved as he was respected, and mine is his reaction after the defeat to Clermont in December 2014: "We're not going to throw in any towel. We'll give it our best shot and make sure we stay fighting. We need to stay true to the badge we wear."

As attitudes to the game of life go, there are few more eloquent.

Irish Independent

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