Sunday 4 December 2016

'An absolute legend. Thank you for the 202 times you stood up and fought for Munster'

Fans left reeling in shock at the sudden death of Munster rugby coach Anthony 'Axel' Foley (42)

David Kelly, Alan O'Keeffe and David Raleigh

Published 17/10/2016 | 02:30

Munster supporters pay their respects at Stade Yves-Du-Manoir following the passing of Anthony Foley. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Munster supporters pay their respects at Stade Yves-Du-Manoir following the passing of Anthony Foley. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

At a make-shift shrine, bedecked with flowers and Munster jerseys assembled at the gates of the Stade Yves Du Manoir in north-west Paris last evening, shocked friends and colleagues of Anthony Foley gathered to somehow collect their thoughts amidst the debris of broken hearts.

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A book of condolences was also hastily acquired and messages of sympathy poured on to every page from every corner of Europe, occasional words of French endearment typifying how this tragic loss had touched every family in the sport, not just the devastated Foleys.

"An absolute legend. Thank you for the 202 times you stood up and fought for Munster," wrote one fan.

"A final whistle tinged with sadness and loss but a lifetime of memories and joy. Our hearts go out to the loved ones and family. A legend. A giant. Stand up and fight," wrote another.

Huddled together, fans then broke into a haunting rendition of 'The Fields of Athenry'.

Hours earlier, the Munster team had assembled for their traditional morning lineout practise ahead of the Champions Cup clash against Racing Metro, coached by Foley's lifelong friend and playing colleague, Ronan O'Gara.

However, when Foley did not arrive to direct the operations in his new guise as a head coach with Munster, having been demoted following two seasons as a head coach, his fellow coaches simply presumed that he had failed to adjust his watch to account for the extra hour.

But they also knew that would not be like the professional Foley they knew so well.

Read more: 'A giant falls': World of sport unites to pay tribute to Munster and Ireland legend Anthony Foley

Jerry Flannery, another lifelong friend and colleague from school-days and beyond, tried ringing Foley on his mobile but he could not get through.

Charles O’Connor who coached Foley. Photo: Mark Condren
Charles O’Connor who coached Foley. Photo: Mark Condren

He also telephoned the Munster team manager, another ex-Shannon man, Niall O'Donovan, but he too could not contact Foley in the team's Novotel base.

The decision was made to acquire a room card when there was also no reply from the telephone in his room; it was then the grimmest and most terrible of discoveries was made.

It is a poignant tragedy, for when Munster played in France on another occasion, against Biarritz some 15 years ago, Foley's uncle died when the team were preparing to play Biarritz.

True to the indomitable spirit of this remarkable family - Brendan was one of those who smote the All Blacks in 1978, sister Rosie has swam the English Channel unaided - Anthony was not told. He still played a blinder.

(4th from left back row) Anthony Foley pictured with the Under 14 parish league, Smith O'Brien team.
(4th from left back row) Anthony Foley pictured with the Under 14 parish league, Smith O'Brien team.

"I used to bring him home from school," recalled John Horan, father of Marcus, Foley's former Shannon, Munster and Ireland colleague.

"I used to laugh. When he got into the car, it used to spill to one side he was so big even then. We travelled with (his parents) Brendan and Sheila to the early Celtic League matches. It's just shock.

Mary Quinlan is the mother of another Shannon, Munster and Ireland colleague, Alan Quinlan, another warrior from that famous day just a decade ago when Foley lifted the Heineken Cup in Cardiff.

"We're in bits. We were lucky to be in a house down the road. We were together. We've all had our ups and downs, our battles during the years.

"He'd always say to Alan; 'Be on my left side.' And Alan said; 'Where else did you think I would be?' When he scored a hat-trick, Alan was beside him every step of the way.

Anthony Foley, 1973-2016: ‘He wore his heart like a crest on his Munster shirt...’ Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Anthony Foley, 1973-2016: ‘He wore his heart like a crest on his Munster shirt...’ Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

"A man of few words. They fought. He loved Alan, he might be guilty thinking about some things he said. But they loved each other. We all did."

In his hometown of Killaloe in Co Clare, a Munster Rugby flag fluttered at half-mast as locals were trying to absorb the news.

All thoughts are particularly with Foley's wife Olive and their sons Tony (12) and Daniel (8), and residents spoke of the profound sense of losing a local hero.

Read more: 'The whole rugby family of Ireland is in mourning' - Munster coach Anthony Foley has died suddenly in France

Charlie O'Connor (65) said "People are finding it hard to comprehend what happened. I coached Anthony when he played hurling for the Smith O'Brien GAA club here in Killaloe. He was a big, tall, lanky full-forward who was a very good hurler who got a place on the Clare under-16 team."

Publican Marie Reddin (90) said that all in Ballina-Killaloe will be there to support his family. "The community will rally around Olive and their sons Dan and Tony and, of course, his parents Brendan and Sheila," she said.

Father and son Ireland jerseys, gifted by Anthony and his father Brendan, are framed side by side on the wall of Reddin's pub.

Back in Limerick at the home of Munster rugby, fans are building a shrine to Anthony 'Axel' Foley at Thomond Park made of flowers and jerseys.

Standing in the cold and rain, they made the trek to pay a final homage to Munster's first European Cup winning captain.

Dan Mooney jnr from Joseph Street in the city said: "In a moment like this, the natural thing to do is to come here and pay your respects and leave a tribute to one of our greatest leaders."

Councils open books of condolence across the province

Books of condolence will be opened across Munster today in memory of Anthony Foley.

Seven local authorities in Munster (Clare County Council, Cork City Council, Cork County Council, Kerry County Council, Limerick City and County Council, Tipperary County Council, Waterford City and County Council) will provide books of condolence from midday to enable fans to pay their respects.

Limerick City Council will have an online book of condolence at www.limerick.ie/council.

Contact your local council for locations of the books.

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