Friday 21 October 2016

Brendan Fanning: Anthony Foley looked a happier man in his new role - nobody defined what was special about Munster quite like him

Published 16/10/2016 | 18:07

If you were involved in rugby at any level today then the conversation was not about your chances of winning or losing, rather it was over the shocking news coming from Paris.

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And the reaction was unanimous: That simply can't be true.

And you began to doubt it yourself. On Thursday we were in Munster's new HQ interviewing Tommy O'Donnell for today's scheduled game, and as we were leaving Anthony Foley was coming down the stairs. Relieved of the constant pressure, he looked a happier man than when he was in the eye of the storm.

And then this.

Our earliest memory of Anthony Foley is from Thomond Park. Where else? He was playing for Ireland Schools against England. The English pack that day literally was a heavier unit than the senior eight which at the time included Paul Ackford and Wade Dooley.

Foley and David Corkery seemed to take that as the green light to get stuck into them. Between the pair of them they made every contact an issue. It was an incredible performance, and you left Limerick that evening knowing that the pair of them would soon enough be on the senior team.

There were three strings to Anthony Foley's bow: the club, the province, the country. We were lucky enough to be on the press circuit when the All Ireland League was at its peak.

That meant spinning up and down the N7 pretty much every Saturday, for Munster clubs were at its heart. And once Cork Con, Garryowen and Young Munster filled their boots with title wins, Shannon got stuck into a four in a row that no club has matched since.

Foley loved it.

It was a forward dominated game, and he was the prototype: a player with a hard edge and a footballing IQ that would have sat comfortably in the head of any 10. Never the quickest over the ground, Foley's ability to read a game got him there on time every time.

When the provincial game relegated the clubs to the backwater, then Foley carried on with Munster where he had left off with Shannon. No one was better equipped to define what was special about Munster. No one better understood their history and their place as men with bitterness driving them on. He became inseparable from Munster's success in the Heineken Cup.

With Ireland too, Anthony Foley had lots to offer. He was the number eight on Eddie O'Sullivan's Triple Crown winning breakthrough side in 2004, the start of a successful era. With Simon Easterby at six and David Wallace at seven it was a unit with perfect balance.

That all seems like yesterday. As does the success of Shannon on the club front, and Munster on the pro scene. And in the midst of it all was one of the most effective and shrewd players this country has ever produced.

He leaves a gap that will never be filled.

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