Monday 27 February 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: No-nonsense hero epitomised what made Munster unique

Few players in the modern era have given as much to their club and their province as Anthony Foley did

Eamonn Sweeney

Anthony Foley often proved to be the key man for Ireland at a time when Irish rugby was struggling. Photo: Sportsfile
Anthony Foley often proved to be the key man for Ireland at a time when Irish rugby was struggling. Photo: Sportsfile

Game One: January 28, 2001. Heineken Cup quarter-final. Thomond Park. Munster 38, Biarritz 29. It was perhaps Anthony Foley's finest hour in the Munster jersey. It may also have been his most untypical. It was a day when the home side cast aside their trademark rigour and parsimony as if determined to show the visitors the French had no monopoly on élan. No one got into the wild and woolly spirit of things better than Munster's No 8.

I remember being at the match with a few people from Skibbereen and when those well-known three-quarters Alan Quinlan and Mick Galwey combined to put Foley over in the corner for the second of his three tries, we looked at each other with 'is this really happening?' expressions on our faces.

That was Munster in those days. Anything could happen, and it usually did. It already felt like something extraordinary was unfolding, although another five agonising years would pass before the Cup actually came to Limerick, completing Munster's transformation from Irish sport's ultimate gallant losers to its ultimate winners. No one played a bigger part in that transformation than Anthony Foley.

If Foley seems even more emblematic of Munster's extraordinary noughties glory days than Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara, perhaps it's because when you think of the man you think of him in the Munster jersey. Close your eyes and think of O'Connell and O'Gara, and at least half of the time you'll picture them in green. With Foley it will always be red. He was excellent for Ireland, a total of 62 caps attests to that, but for Munster he was something of a different order entirely.

Anthony Foley seemed to epitomise the qualities which made Munster rugby unique and had done so a long time before the Heineken Cup was even thought of. He embodied its tenacity, its ruthlessness, its courage and the very fact that in Munster rugby matters more.

It matters to more people, to a more varied section of society and in a more profound way than it does anywhere else on this island, or maybe even anywhere else in Europe.

Foley was in a special position. His father, Brendan, was the only member of the 1978 Munster team which beat the All Blacks to see his son play for the province. When Ireland won the Triple Crown in 2004, a first success in almost 20 years, Foley was the only member of the team whose father had played for Ireland. When Munster won the Heineken Cup two years later he was in a similar position. For all the talk of destiny and tradition, players who follow in their father's footsteps like this are rarer than you'd think.

* * * * *

Game Two: January 14, 1995. Stradbrook. All-Ireland League. Blackrock College 3, Shannon 10

It's impossible to think of Anthony Foley without thinking of Shannon. He may have been born and reared in Killaloe, but to a certain extent he was made in Shannon.

The Limerick city club also seems like the embodiment of the specific Munster qualities. In a rugby sense, Foley was not just descended from his father - the likes of Colm Tucker, Gerry McLoughlin, Mick Moylett, Niall O'Donovan and Noel Glynn were also ancestors.

When Foley was growing up, Shannon were the best team in Munster, winning three Munster Senior Cups on the trot between 1986 and 1988 and adding another couple in 1991 and 1992. This made them the best in Ireland because, when the All-Ireland League began in 1991, it became clear that Munster rugby people's insistence all along, to Dublin media disbelief, that the real stuff was only to be found in their province was largely correct. Munster sides won the first nine AIL titles and no one won more than Shannon, who took four on the trot between 1995 and 1998.

In 1995, as Shannon closed in on the first of those victories, they faced a crucial game against title rivals Blackrock College. The only problem was that star player Foley had just been selected for his first Irish cap the following Saturday, and it was usual in these circumstances for players to skip club games. Even the Shannon management would have understood had Foley done so.

Instead he played and gave an outstanding display as Shannon scored a victory which ultimately gave them the title. "It showed his commitment to the club and gave us a belief that we could go out and beat Blackrock," said Shannon coach Niall O'Donovan, now Munster team manager.

In fact, amazing as this seems now, Foley played every single league game in Shannon's four-in-a-row. Few international players in the modern era have given so much to their club.

* * * * *

Game Three: January 21, 1995. Five Nations Championship. Lansdowne Road. Ireland 8, England 20

.

If it wasn't the heaviest defeat Ireland suffered in the '90s, it was one of the most dispiriting. Wins in the previous two years against England had led to fantasies that a revival was nigh for struggling Ireland. Instead England dominated this game totally and defeated Ireland as they had done in seven of the nine previous meetings - and as they would do in the next five meetings between the sides. It looked like men against boys as a big athletic English pack did what they wanted against the outgunned Irish.

Yet there was one stirring moment of resistance and it came from the youngest player on the Irish team, 21-year-old debut boy Anthony Foley, who in the closing stages tapped a penalty to himself, went for the line and got there. The kid had come along at a pretty rough time for Irish rugby - Ireland would win just one game that season, they had won just one the season before that and would win just one the following season. It would be 2000, after the Five Nations had become Six, before Ireland won more than one game in the championship.

Looking at England that day it was hard to see how Ireland would ever compete with them at the top of the table again. And no one exemplified English impregnability like Dean Richards at No 8. Richards was talented, tough and ruthless but, above all, he always seemed to be in control. Irish fans hated him while wondering why we didn't produce players like that anymore. Yet by the time Anthony Foley retired he had become our equivalent of Richards, the man who made things tick, who never took a backward step or the wrong option.

When England ruled the roost, Irish fans complained that they were 'robotic' and had a sinister edge to them. When Munster won Europe, the French complained that the way they controlled possession when they went ahead, with Foley the key man, was contrary to some unwritten spirit of the game.

These are the things you say when you're getting your ass kicked by a better team. Anthony Foley's career coincided with Ireland's emergence from the doldrums. By 2004, the team were good enough to go to Twickenham and hand the reigning world champions their first home defeat in five years. Foley was outstanding that day, as he was when Ireland clinched a Triple Crown with a win over Scotland three weeks later. It was the crowning season of his international career.

* * * * *

Game Four: January 19, 2008. Heineken Cup group stages. Thomond Park. Munster 19, Wasps 3.

A great career was drawing to a close. By the time Munster won their second final in three years in 2008, a 35-year-old Foley had been dropped from the team. He announced his retirement at the end of the season.

Yet there had been one great, last hurrah, one final remarkable performance in a career full of them. Munster had lost two games out of five going into their final match in Pool 5. Only a win would do, but their opponents were reigning European champions London Wasps, the latest in a long line of English super teams to come to Thomond thinking they'd be the ones who could finally work the oracle in Limerick.

They didn't have a chance. It rained hard in Limerick and the game developed into a war of attrition in which no warrior was more ferocious than the Munster No 8. Foley was a titan on the ground that day, outclassing his old rival Lawrence Dallaglio and setting the tone for one of the great Munster home performances. He had come in like a lion and he left like one. From kid to veteran, the constants were intelligence and integrity. The preferred term for describing the great Shannon teams was always 'no nonsense'. There was no better way of describing the club's greatest son.

* * * * *

Anthony Foley was a great player, but the most important thing about him now is that he was a man who died far too young. He was robbed of the years when he could recollect his great moments in tranquillity and, most tragically, of the chance to be with his wife and enjoy his children growing up. They have been robbed of a husband and a father, his parents have been robbed of a son and his sisters of a brother.

The sense of loss felt by even the most fanatical Munster supporter pales into insignificance compared to what the Foley family will be feeling this week. Even the fact that Anthony Foley was loved to an extent matched by very few Irish rugby players may be of scant consolation to them right now, and for a long time to come.

Loved he was. But at a time like this the words which come to mind are the bleak and horrible ones of King Lear as he sees the dead body of his daughter Cordelia: "No, no, no life? Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all? Oh thou'lt come no more, never, never, never, never, never."

Perhaps, like a club retiring a jersey to honour a beloved player, it's time for us all to retire the use of the word 'tragedy' to describe what happens on the playing pitch.

Because, really, sporting disappointment is not tragedy. Tragedy is the death of Anthony Foley and the grief of his family. A warrior has left us, a light has gone out.

Like the dew on the mountain,

Like the foam on the river,

Like the bubble on the fountain,

Thou art gone, and for ever!

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