Tuesday 26 September 2017

Axel cared so much about people, on and off the field - David Wallace

Munster's Anthony Foley, left, and David Wallace celebrate victory over Stade Francais. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Munster's Anthony Foley, left, and David Wallace celebrate victory over Stade Francais. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
A battered but unbowed Anthony Foley in action against Viadana in 2002.
Leinster's Peter McKenna is tackled by Munster's Anthony Foley (left) and David Wallace. Photo: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile
Foley finally gets his hands on the Heineken Cup in 2006.

David Wallace

How do you sit down to write your thoughts about the death of such a dear friend, like Anthony Foley was to all of us? I found it very hard to collect my thoughts; ideas wash around your head and none of them seem like coherent sentiments.

It's not a logical event to have to process. What I can say is I was absolutely honoured to share a field and a dressing-room with Axel.

From a young age he was the guy I looked up to, and even though he was only two years older than me, I thought he was a hero.

The more I got to know him I realised how right my first opinion of him was.

On Monday, my family and I went to visit the memorial that has been erected in his memory at Thomond Park. It is a beautiful thing, seeing everyone's hand-written notes, all those flags and colours, but it is still hard to process that it's there for Anthony.

When I first heard the news, a few of the old team got together and we went out to Killaloe to visit Anthony's family. They're a close-knit community and family, and my heart goes out to Olive, Tony and Dan, Brendan, Sheila, Rosie and Orla.

Emotions

For all of Anthony's former team-mates, and players that he has trained, emotions are raw and we are all heavy hearted. But just like we did on the pitch, the grieving process will be tackled together.

We recently had our ten-year anniversary of the 2006 Heineken Cup win, and since then we've all been in more regular contact again. We are still a tight unit and we'll be there for each other in the weeks and months ahead.

I first heard of Anthony when I was in school, but I never really came into regular contact with him until I started playing senior with Garryowen.

I do remember spotting him one day when I was with the Munster U-20s team, though.

We were staying at the Limerick Inn - the seniors were there that night too - and I popped in to the bar to get a glass of water. There at that bar were two of the broadest backs you could imagine - Anthony's and David Corkery's.

Even at that age I was in awe of him, I was afraid to go up and introduce myself. Little did I know he would turn out to be one of my best friends - even then, he was a legend in my eyes.

From school he went straight into the Shannon team and he was key to that four-in-a-row side. The fact that he played all 48 of those games over the four seasons typified him, his fitness and his dedication to the colours.

Playing in between me and Alan Quinlan must have been a real test of his skills, but I was always amazed by his fitness and rugby skills.

As well as the 39 tries he scored for Munster he had brilliant stamina, so much so that in lactic acid tests my scores would double while Axel's would barely budge.

Right throughout my career he was a solid presence. My first tour as a professional was an Irish development tour to New Zealand, and Axel was my first room-mate out there, in Whangarei.

What amazed me about him was how relaxed he was about it all. He sat back and took it all in. I was just thrilled to be rooming with him, just to get to hang out with him was an amazing experience.

I was really daunted by the touring experience, but as he did for years after that, he took me under his wing and played the older brother role that he did so well.

It was the first time I got to see his generosity of spirt and how much he cared about people, something I saw both on and off the field.

He had a real quick wit, he loved the slagging that went on - both at his expense and others - and once you were close to him, you were a friend for life. He was a wicked laugh off the field.

And when I got to know 'Anthony the player' it was immediately evident that he was the general. In the early days we still had Claw and Gaillimh on the team, but it was Axel that steered us tactically as a pack.

Off the field he was a relaxed customer, but on it he was in charge. When it came to doing a job for his rugby team there was no-one that gave it more attention.

I'll always admire the mental fortitude he had. The amount of times he came back stronger from injuries and not being selected was remarkable.

His will to win was incredible, even if it meant he wasn't to be the hero. The amount of times he'd do selfless things for others, like when he'd give me the nod or say: 'Wally go in at No 8' for a carry. That might have promoted areas of my game ahead of his, but he didn't care. It wasn't about him, it was always the team.

We've all heard the stories of how he would watch rugby videos with his father, Brendan, but we all saw that in the analysis sessions in Munster. He loved that part of the game; there was no one as clued in as Anthony. He was a rugby scholar.

Recently I called into his office for a chat and there was something on the screen and I wondered what it was. It was a written test that he had put together for the Munster players on the laws of rugby. He knew them inside out and he expected the players to know them too - and he took great joy in testing me too.

In recent days I bumped into referee John Lacey and he said that, along with Andy Robinson, Anthony was known by the referees as the top dog when it came to knowing the rules.

He was a rugby genius and it stemmed from having that bank of knowledge. He always knew when to take a kick or go for the corner.

Right throughout my Munster and Ireland career, having Axel behind me was a real comfort blanket.

Blood

All I worried about was the next ruck and not making a stupid mistake, but Axel thought his way - and guided me - around the field. A lot of that was in his blood, but he worked and studied the game harder than anyone else too.

But most of all I'll remember the big slap on the shoulder he'd deliver whenever we'd meet up.

The season after I'd retired and I started writing this column, Jerry Flannery invited me out for a drink one night. When I got there I was surprised to see the whole Munster squad there.

I really didn't know how the fact that I was writing about my former team-mates was being received, but before I knew it I felt the slap on the shoulder and the 'Well Wal?' and a beaming smile from Axel. There was no issues and that was a great feeling.

He was there too when my wife, Aileen, threw a surprise 40th birthday party for me this summer, but it would be one of the last times that we sat down for a few beers together.

At times last season when results weren't going Munster's way, I found it hard to say that he needed help, but Anthony would have admitted that himself.

And anyone you speak to that worked with him in the last few months will say how happy he was being back on the training pitch full-time.

He was doing what he loved, which was being a rugby coach, and not having to deal with off-the-field issues.

Munster got a great man in Rassie Erasmus over the summer and his arrival meant Axel could do what made him the happiest.

A few weeks ago Woody asked me to take part in the opening of Clarisford Park in Killaloe, which entailed 15 minutes of tag rugby, followed by 15 minutes of soccer. As it turned out Axel was our team captain.

To be captained by him one last time when he was loving life was incredible.

Rest in peace Axel.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport