Sunday 11 December 2016

A man of character, a man of candour, a man of humour

Published 17/10/2016 | 02:30

Anthony Foley leads out Munster at Thomond Park in 2003. Photo: Pat Murphy
Anthony Foley leads out Munster at Thomond Park in 2003. Photo: Pat Murphy

Munster prefers its heroes on the unpretentious side and few men honoured that contract more naturally than Anthony Foley.

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So words have seldom seemed as superfluous as they do today, the shock of his passing at 42 all but paralysing a community for whom he has long held such emblematic status. And no matter the sincerity so palpable in a great ocean of dry-throated tributes decanted by yesterday's awful news from Paris, it was hard to process them sufficiently to hear anything more than air hissing from a valve.

Death is simply not meant to intrude into the world of a young family and, when it does, the only logical thing to do is flounder.

The man so commonly known as 'Axel' referred to Munster as his "third family" and word of his death clearly plunged so many colleagues, past and present, from that domain into emotional turmoil. By evening yesterday, the gates of Thomond Park had become a comforting shrine for people still struggling palpably to put their thoughts to order.

The perversity is that Foley was part of a generation that will seem forever young in our imaginations, captain of Munster when they finally cracked Europe and a regular presence in green around the time Ireland began improbably stockpiling Triple Crowns.

But it was his character, his candour, his humour that maybe best defined him.

Anthony Foley scores a try against Italy in 1999
Anthony Foley scores a try against Italy in 1999

Because Anthony Foley came from a working-class family and chose never to forget that. His father, Brendan, is described in Alan English's 'Stand Up and Fight - When Munster beat the All Blacks' as "a van driver among accountants and solicitors" when he first played for Ireland against France at Parc des Princes in 1976.

He had been reared in the tough Limerick council estate, St Mary's Park, and English writes: "Among Limerick rugby people, those drawn from the city's working-class strongholds and beyond, Foley was loved." He suggests that the "ordinary supporter" identified with him because "in Foley, they saw themselves".

Anthony Foley was cut from his father's cloth, an innately intelligent rugby player - one Keith Wood has described as the smartest he played with or against - a ferocious competitor, yet quick witted and incorrigibly mischievous too.

He was one of those who bridged the fun of an amateur past with the ruthlessly competitive environment into which professionalism dragged so many players virtually kicking and screaming.

And Munster especially came to rely upon his game-intelligence when pivotal collisions needed to be won.

Ronan O'Gara recalls a Heineken Cup game in '06 and the visit to Thomond of a Sale team then dominating the English Premiership. When Sale scored an early penalty, Foley instructed O'Gara to put the restart "into them".

Essentially, he wanted a target for the Munster pack to hit and when that great, immovable barge Sébastien Chabal duly fielded O'Gara's kick, Foley's plan had traction. The bearded Frenchman was hit instantly by Paul O'Connell and, too proud to go to ground, Chabal was then sent jolting 20 yards backwards as Foley arrived with the cavalry. Thomond, naturally, convulsed.

"It was a massive moment," O'Gara writes in his autobiography. "Their strongest man, flattened."

His career stats will forever distinguish memories of Foley, but he understood the transience of success too and, accordingly, knew better than to indulge too much solemnity around failures. Famously, after Ireland's crushingly disappointing World Cup performance in '07, he texted the Munster players involved: "You're not the first Irish team to bring disgrace on the nation and ye won't be the last!"

Anyone countenacing a respectful period of self-pity was quickly disabused of the notion that they might be returning to some kind of adult creche.

The wickedness of his one-liners could disarm opponents as much as entertain team-mates. Donncha O'Callaghan recounts a game against Border Reivers in Scotland and the opposition hooker declaring Foley "a fat bastard". The response was instantaneous. "Are there no mirrors in your house?" asked Foley.

O'Callaghan remembers: "The hooker was a big man and everybody who heard the line broke out laughing, including his team-mates. The sound of that laughter would have been more devastating than any dig Axel could have given him."

Foley himself wasn't big by modern standards and he certainly wasn't especially fast. But his ability to do what Wood refers to as "the right thing at the right time, all the time" made him one of Munster and Ireland's greatest players of the professional era.

Quite how far he was destined to travel as a coach will, tragically, never be answered now. But the equanimity and maturity with which he responded to last summer's arrival of Rassie Erasmus as Munster's Director of Rugby suggested a man with the humility to interpret the appointment as part of his own education in the game. Preciousness and self-absorption were never part of Foley's persona and his death will gouge a great hole now, above all, in the lives of those he loved. But everybody who ever met him will feel an ache in the soul too. Because, as Les Kiss put it, he stood for something.

When we remember him, perhaps the best thing to say of Anthony Foley will be "Now THAT was a man."

Irish Independent

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