Monday 5 December 2016

Foley family tell of emotion at squad's Number 8 tribute

Stander: ‘ This was for Axel’; Parents speak of sheer pride

Grainne Loughran

Published 07/11/2016 | 02:30

Ireland face the haka in a shape of eight in memory of Anthony Foley. Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Ireland face the haka in a shape of eight in memory of Anthony Foley. Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Anthony Foley. SPORTSFILE

It was the ultimate tribute to a fallen hero, and a fitting response to the psychological warfare of the haka.

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The family of Anthony Foley have revealed how moved they were by the emotional tribute to the late rugby star ahead of Ireland's historic defeat of the All Blacks.

Ultan Dillane celebrates the victory at Soldier Field. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ultan Dillane celebrates the victory at Soldier Field. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In a poignant scene just before the kick-off in Chicago, the Irish squad formed a figure of eight - Foley's number - as they faced down the famously intimidating New Zealand haka.

Setting the mood for a defiant performance, Ireland went on to stun the rugby world and end a 111-year wait for a win over the world champions.

Beating them decisively 40-29, the scoreline was also an exact reversal of the result the last time Foley played against them.

"To say that we were touched by how Ireland faced the New Zealand haka, drawing inspiration from the number eight, would be an understatement," said Foley's family on a Facebook page set up in memory of the coach known as "Axel".

"Ironically, 15 years ago Anthony played for Ireland against and lost to New Zealand on a score of......40-29.

"Last night's Irish response to the haka was incredible remembrance."

Munster's head coach died suddenly in Paris last month, hours before the province's scheduled Champions Cup opener against Racing 92, which was then postponed.

Read more: 'We put the Munster lads on the front line' - Rory Best explains emotional pre-match tribute to Anthony Foley

Jamie Heaslip is cheered from the pitch by supporters after the game. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip is cheered from the pitch by supporters after the game. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The 42-year-old had won 63 caps for Ireland and spearheaded Munster's rise to the top of the European game, as the Thomond Park province won two Heineken Cup titles.

In Chicago, proud flanker CJ Stander admitted he could never have helped Ireland to the unforgettable defeat over New Zealand without his rugby "rock" Foley.

Stander fronted the figure-of-eight tribute formation alongside Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo at Soldier Field.

"We made a figure of eight; for me personally, Murray and all the Munster boys to stand at the front, that was big," he said.

"He meant so much to me, he was really the rock in my rugby the last four years.

"He showed me a lot about what he'd learned over the years. I think he pushed me to the next level."

Stander added: "Everything we gave was for him. So this match was for Axel."

Family and friends of the team couldn't hide their pride following the inspiring win.

Tony Henshaw, father to 23-year old-Robbie, said that he was "proud as punch" of his son, who scored Ireland's winning try.

"I got nervous when there was just four points in it, and the next thing our fella sails in and that was it. The try was straight off the training pitch," he said.

"He put in a lot of crunching tackles and he took some big hits himself, so he's pretty sore this morning. But he doesn't mind, it was well worth it."

Zebo's mother Lynda was another proud parent after the match.

"We're absolutely ecstatic. We're so delighted for the team, for Simon, for everybody. It's so wonderful for us and the family, and such a tribute to Ireland," she said.

Sinead Ryan from Athy RFC said that they were "unbelievably proud" of former member Joey Carbery, who won his first cap on Saturday.

"Joey's dad, also called Joey, is our senior coach and he and our president went out as representatives of the club, so we managed to get a little bit of representation out," she said.

She added that Joey's family had visited the club's broadcast of the match on Saturday night. "Joey's mam and brother and sister came up to the club last night," she said. "I've never seen the club as packed as it was here that night."

Kieran Ryan from Murray's former stomping ground, Garryowen FC, said that winning the match was "priceless".

"Everyone's coming in with their stories about watching the match today. We feel 10 feet taller today," he said.

"I'm standing looking at a photo of him with a bad haircut in an under-20s jersey. We're jumping out of the seats.

"Conor had a starring role from start to finish.

"People talk about Munster versus the All Blacks in '78, but to see this in my lifetime is phenomenal."

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