Thursday 23 March 2017

Alan Quinlan: Axel impact shines through on tough occasion

Conor Murray offers a comforting hand to Keith Earls, who was sent off during Saturday’s game for a tip tackle DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE
Conor Murray offers a comforting hand to Keith Earls, who was sent off during Saturday’s game for a tip tackle DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE

Alan Quinlan

John Langford and Alan Gaffney came from Australia, while Ronan O'Gara, Trevor Brennan, Mike Prendergast and Denis Fogarty made the journey from France.

Peter Stringer, meanwhile, flew in from England, attended the funeral, made the return journey to play for Sale last Friday night and then the next day was on another flight, making his way to Thomond Park for the Glasgow game.

Similar stories played out across the week. Players, past and present, and officials from all four Irish provinces were there, standing shoulder to shoulder.

Then there were Frankie Roche and Tim McGann, who Munster die-hards will remember well. But others mightn't. Yet both men were on the phone not long after they heard the terrible news about Anthony's death last Sunday, and they were organising flights from across the world, in Australia, so that they could pay their respects.

All these sacrifices that people were making made me stop and think. Anthony 'Axel' Foley had a huge impact on so many lives - most of all his family who he loved dearly - but also on his former team-mates and friends.

And while there have been times when we didn't realise what we have been through as a group, how close a bond we all had, last week served as a reminder that we shared something unique during those years toiling around rugby pitches together.

So, as we recounted memories and told stories, I'm sure we could have been accused of being guilty for banging an old drum. Yet there was something Ronan O'Gara said on Saturday, just before he had to leave us to head off to Racing's match, which summed everything up perfectly. "We've friends for life here. We should be proud of that."

We all are and we all know that Axel was central to that. He played in the first European game for Munster when the journey began in 1995 and fittingly, he was the man who was there, 11 years later, lifting the trophy in Cardiff.

So, as I looked around the room that we were gathered in on Friday night and thought about all the lovely stuff that was being said about Anthony, there was a real warmth among us. Everyone wanted to be together, and wanted to be there for Anthony's family, because he was someone we looked up to - the go-to man when we were in trouble, on the field or off it.

As a man, he was so passionate about his sport, about winning and competing. Tellingly, then, there were tributes paid from opponents right across the world - and that didn't surprise me because when Axel played, he was a real old-school competitor. He wanted to meet the opposition and have a pint afterwards, even if he had just spent 80 minutes kicking the crap out of them.

Keith Earls is tackled by Sam Johnson of Glasgow Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Keith Earls is tackled by Sam Johnson of Glasgow Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

And sometimes that kind of thing is lost in modern sport, in this age of ice baths and recovery drinks, nutrition and best practice. Sometimes the old way can be the best way, where you could compete with a man on the park and then have a drink with him off it.

Last week proved that. Many rugby people from around the world would not have known him intimately as a person - but they made it their business to attend Friday's funeral or to send messages of support, because they knew him for what he was - a great sportsman, a great dad, son, husband and brother.

For Anthony, the value of a proper sportsman was to shake hands after a game and take your beating if you had lost or show humility if you won. Axel could do that and the eulogy delivered so beautifully and impressively by Olive, his wife, on Friday summed him up better than anyone else could.

Axel wouldn't have wanted the limelight or the fuss. Yet he deserved every tribute that has been paid to him over the last week.

And he deserved the performance his players delivered for him on Saturday. That game is likely to be such a seminal moment, a dreadfully sad time for his family and for Munster rugby, and yet a realisation that even in death, he continues to inspire people.

Sometimes we move on quickly with our lives after a terrible event but you hope, after Saturday, that this will be a real inspiration for Munster, because many of the younger players will not have experienced an occasion like that: a full house, an emotionally-charged atmosphere - a manic desire to win.

The performance was such a tribute to Axel. Look at the forward pack. They were immense. And why? Because this season he was back among them every day, focused on coaching them, cajoling them to be the best they can be.

Glasgow, good team that they are, didn't have a chance. I'm not even sure if the All Blacks would have found it easy in Thomond Park on Saturday. It was just that kind of day, a day when we saw the best of human nature, particularly from Gregor Townsend and Dan McFarland, who made it their business to be there in Killaloe on Friday, paying their respects in what was a tough situation for them as well.

Before kick-off, people said the result was not important. Yet the more I thought about it, the result was vital - it was a game Munster could not lose.

Rassie Erasmus and his coaching staff, who handled themselves so thoughtfully all week, inspired the players to honour Anthony as best they could, by focusing on the job. That was an incredibly difficult thing to do. The hardest part was to go out and play.

And they did. The performance was incredible - during the 80 minutes and then afterwards, when they brought Anthony's boys, Dan and Tony, on to the field and fittingly formed a circle before singing 'Stand up and fight'. The Foleys will always be part of the Munster circle.

We all know that what has happened to Anthony - at such a young age - makes little sense. Yet one positive is that his two sons will learn and understand more about their father's legacy as they get older and be able to take some pride and comfort from the fact that there was an incredible reaction and support for what Axel achieved in his life.

One group of people that should also be remembered are his non-rugby playing friends, some of whom made the journey back to Killaloe last week from the United States, Dubai, Australia and other parts of the world. Meeting some of those guys and hearing their stories about growing up with Anthony served as a reminder of how many people were touched by his presence.

For always, he will be remembered as a hard-working, honest man, and even though he has gone, he is still going to influence and inspire people to excel on the sporting field and in their lives - an incredible legacy for any person to leave behind.

Irish Independent

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