Sunday 22 January 2017

'At school, Axel was a step ahead of everyone else'

Anthony Foley was destined for the top, right from his days as a Junior Cup-winning Munchin's captain

Published 21/10/2016 | 02:30

Anthony Foley lifts the Munster Junior Cup
Anthony Foley lifts the Munster Junior Cup
Anthony Foley with the school’s hurling team

His talent was obvious from as early as he first stepped foot in St. Munchin's College in September 1987 and while there were plenty of disappointments along the way, it was in the Corbally school that Anthony Foley first came to the public's attention.

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The Foley family's association with Munchin's runs deep. His father Brendan coached the up-and-coming young talent while his mother Shelia drove buses in the school.

Reputation

Hurling was Anthony Foley's first sport before rugby grabbed a hold of him. But as soon as he was named captain of the Junior Cup team for the 1989 campaign, there was no turning back.

Munchin's would win only their third ever Junior Cup that year, beating their Limerick rivals Crescent College, and from there, the reputation of the powerful No 8 gathered momentum.

Foley seamlessly made the transition to Senior Cup and he was soon as dominant for them as he had been for the Junior team.

Pat Cross played for Munster with Foley's father Brendan in the early '80s and he watched his former team-mate's son grow, both as a student and as a player.

Munchin's Senior Cup coach knew that he had a special talent on his hands and in Cross' eyes, it was all about nurturing that in the right way.

As it turned out, that task would be relatively straightforward.

"Very often with good players, as a coach, you don't have to do too much only give them the matches and provide them with the right environment," Cross explains.

"The way Anthony played in school, there was very little coaching that needed to be done with him. All great players are the same.

"He was an outstanding player. I taught him in second and third year and he was full of fun. He was a typical teenager, always in trouble but he was never disrespectful to his teachers."

Foley would play a key role in Munchin's march to the 1991 decider but defeat left him even more hungry the next year.

Munchin's would suffer a similar fate in 1992 but not without Foley writing himself into the history books as one of the greatest schools players.

"We got to the schools final in 1992 with a very average team," Cross recalls.

"He was the sole reason we got to the final.

"Without him, we would been hammered in the first round.

"In the semi-final against CBC in Cork, we beat the hot favourites who hadn't been beaten all season. He beat them on his own that day.

Performance

"It was the best performance I have ever seen by any schoolboy player in my 35 years involved in coaching in schools rugby.

"No player has ever come close to that performance since.

"He was very intelligent, he stole their lineouts, he carried ball through the middle of the field, he made tackles. He was absolutely outstanding.

"That season I think he scored 24 tries, it might have been more. He was averaging two or three tries every game from the No 8 position. Any time we got five or ten metres from the line, he would score. There was never any question about it.

"He was far more intelligent and more clued in. He was a step ahead of everyone else.

"People talk about Paul McGrath in the Irish soccer team and how he never had any great pace but was always in the right place at the right time. Anthony was the same. He made it look easy."

Having twice experienced the pain of Senior Cup final defeats, Foley would have to endure similar agony with Munster before he eventually got his hands on the Heineken Cup in 2006.

Foley returned to where it all began with the Heineken Cup in tow, and for principal David Quilter, that day still holds plenty of fond memories.

"We've brought back many personalities and many cups but the crowd was huge that particular day," Quilter said.

"When we officially opened the new school after the recent €8m development, we asked the students who they would like the main guest to be.

"The students said Anthony Foley and we were kind of taken aback by that. It could have been Conor Murray, Keith Earls or Jerry Flannery but no, it was Anthony Foley who they asked for.

"Everyone could have identified with him. He had a link with students more than other past player that I have seen.

"Anthony was always much more comfortable talking to the students in a dressing-room than he would ever have been talking to his former teachers in the staff room. He never liked that.

"He was a very proud past pupil of St Munchin's and we were equally proud to count him amongst our own."

The traits that former teachers and coaches use to describe Foley echo those of the tributes that have been paid to him all week.

Passionate, determined, committed. Foley always carried what he learned in his schooldays through to his career as a player and later as a coach.

"I think the Munchin's mentality actually nourished Anthony in a big way," Cross says.

"That comes from his family and his father as well. The fact that he never won too much in school really drove him on. Losing was disappointing but it was never the end of the world for him.

"He would never say much in the dressing-room but when he said something everybody listened to him. Whatever he said, he would carry out himself and expect the others to do the same. He set very high standards that way.

"He was one of the few players who could have his fun before the game and then change completely when he was out on the pitch.

"He was a different animal. His commitment was extraordinary."

That 'extraordinary commitment' was a hallmark of Foley's five years in Munchin's and it remained with him even after he finished in June 1992.

His legacy within the four walls of the school has long been cemented.

Anthony Foley will always be one of St Munchin's College's proudest sons.

Irish Independent

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