Thursday 20 July 2017

Billy Keane: We are all missionaries for Axel's cause in a world badly in need of his kind of decency and guidance

'I am certain you will agree the memory of Axel lives on' Photo: Sportsfile
'I am certain you will agree the memory of Axel lives on' Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

If there's such a thing as a month's mind in rugby, well then this it. Munster are back in Paris to play Racing Metro in a match that is more than a game. On this very day Racing Metro host a memorial service for the late and present Anthony 'Axel' Foley in the place where he took his last breath.

The return to Paris triggers memories of that fateful day when the news came through that Axel passed away.

But he's not gone away. I really and truly believe Axel is still with us. And even if you are one of those who has difficulty with the jumping of the logical leap needed to believe in the continuance of the human spirit after death, well then I am certain you will agree that the memory of Axel lives on. The posthumous values he left us are foremost in the minds of his players and sports fans everywhere.

For such is his legacy and we must make sure his legacy endures.

For a while I was sure the chivalrous values of the old rugby order were being eroded to the point of near obliteration with each and every passing professional game. Players were routinely taken out by vicious high tackles and rugby let the perpetrators walk free without so much as even a donation to the poor box.

Players were being flogged by too many games joined up like railway carriages. Money men had taken over the big clubs in England and France and the spirit of free enterprise sold the game in chains to the bondage of television. Off the field, there were dehumanising attacks on players, coaches and rival fans on the internet by men who hid behind anonymity.

The decency of our Axel was a reminder of days gone by when teams tore into each other on the field and drank pints together afterwards in old rugby clubs smelling of chicken a la king and Deep Heat.

This week Leicester sacked head coach Richard Cockerill.

Richard was a Leicester player for 12 years. He gave eight years of his life as a coach, and six as director of rugby. Richard Cockerill's Leicester teams won nine Premierships and two Heineken Cups.

The board thanked him for his service as they held the exit door open, said he was a great man and called him by his nickname 'Cockers'.

If he was that wonderful, we wondered, why did Leicester give him the road halfway through the season? Shades of soccer then about the shameful sacking in mid-season of a man who gave so much.

Yes, there are signs of hope. Racing Metro, a club owned by Jackie Lorenzetti, who is a very wealthy man, treated Munster and Axel with great dignity. Lorenzetti immediately agreed to a postponement. All of our friends in Clermont wore the number eight. Fans and players everywhere, from New Zealand to here at home, paid their own tributes.

The game can be saved. It comes down to the way we treat each other as human beings. I have always abhorred the efforts by some to turn the Munster-Leinster rivalry in to some sort of vicious internecine hate war. Get behind your team and cheer your loudest.

Ian Buckley is the chairman of the Munster Supporters' Club. "One of my best mates was over at the cancelled game and he is going back to thank the Racing fans who couldn't do enough for the Munster supporters outside the stadium when the sad news came through," he said. "Friendships have been made and we will reciprocate when they come over here in a few weeks' time."

There was this friend of mine who met a gorgeous Swedish girl in a sunny country back in the late seventies. They had a fling and he invited her to visit his home.

The telephone system was a disaster back then and the Swedish beauty arrived unannounced. My friend's mother met her at the door. Her son the lover was at work.

The mother showed the Swedish beauty to the spare room with the single bed as narrow as a stretcher. "But," said the Viking girl, "I want to sleep in your son's room." It seems the Swedes, and just about everyone else too, were that bit more advanced.

The poor mother had to take to her own bed with the shock of it all. Back then, it was the custom in Ireland to only share a bed with a member of the opposite sex if you were at least two years' married.

Irish people would nearly sign over the house to you after the few drinks out foreign: "Come on and stay with us." I often entertained people I hardly knew for a week after such rash promises. But we are excellent at looking after visitors. Racing followed through on sincere promises made. Munster did too.

This is different. The exchange programme could be the start of a beautiful coming-together all over the world with rival fans offering homes away from home.

Mark Meehan, originally from Knocknaheeny in Cork, is co-ordinating the exchange for Munster Supporters' Club. He has matched up Munster fans with Racing families. Mark says there is massive goodwill on both sides.

Mark told of hearing the terrible news in the train going to the game.

Two hundred and fifty or so Munster fans marched to the ground without so much as a song or a word. Today there are plans for both sets of supporters to form a guard of honour for the Munster and Racing teams as they enter the stadium.

Rugby can provide the good example for all sports. Axel's death may not have been in vain.

We have hardly mentioned the game. Marcus Horan was asked by the perceptive Marian Finucane who would win on the morning of the Glasgow game, the day after Axel was laid to rest in Killaloe. I can't recall the exact words but Marcus said it didn't really matter who won. The importance of just playing the game was paramount. He was right.

Today is different in that a Munster win will go a long way towards ensuring qualification for the next round. The word needs spreading. Munster must keep on going for the cause.

Every one of us here in this country can become a missionary. We are good at that too. Our country has a glorious opportunity to spread the word and the word is values.

The longer Munster stay in the more people we reach. The win over the All Blacks ensured Axel's values of giving your all, playing with intelligence, loyalty, honesty and respect were passed on globally.

These values and standards of Axel's enhance all of our lives and every part of our lives in a wilting, worldly, tired old world, badly in need of worthy causes.

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