Monday 1 May 2017

Farewell to a figurehead whose spirit lives on - Anthony Foley's inducted into Irish Independent Hall of Fame

Brendan Foley, father of Anthony Foley pictured with his daughters Rose and Orla, as they accept the Hall of Fame Award on Anthony’s behalf, at the Irish Independent Sport Star of the Year Awards. Photo: Frank McGrath
Brendan Foley, father of Anthony Foley pictured with his daughters Rose and Orla, as they accept the Hall of Fame Award on Anthony’s behalf, at the Irish Independent Sport Star of the Year Awards. Photo: Frank McGrath
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

You see the pictures still, snapshots of a community frozen, disbelieving, helpless. A threadbare knuckle of supporters singing 'The Fields' at the gates of Stade Yves du Manoir that wretched October morning.

The hearse pausing outside a hauntingly dark and skeletal Thomond on his final journey home.

Olympic rowing silver medallist Paul O’Donovan, who won the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year accolade along with his brother Gary, pictured with the award at last night’s presentation in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Olympic rowing silver medallist Paul O’Donovan, who won the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year accolade along with his brother Gary, pictured with the award at last night’s presentation in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

So many old comrades gathering in a Killaloe churchyard, faces waxy with loss and incredulity.

His widow, Olive, her hands pressed gently to the back of the coffin as they crossed the church steps.

And Anthony Foley's two boys, stoic and manful in unspoken honour of their father's way.

He is gone and even now, two months later, it is hard to process that reality. Taken from his family, intimate and extended, at the age of just 42.

The tributes paid to Munster's head coach had a global reach and bore a sincerity that could not have been manufactured. People did not simply mourn the loss of a rugby man. They wept over something more fundamental.

Superficial

It was as if his death shouldered people momentarily away from the superficial emotional extremes of professional sport to an understanding that wins and losses are just the small print of a life well lived.

Almost exactly nine months before he died, Anthony Foley was also in Paris. His team's heavy January defeat to Stade Francais evicted Munster from Champions Cup rugby at the pool stage for a second year running and decanted all manner of over-arched doomsaying about where that eviction stood in the annals of bad Irish rugby days.

You can but imagine how cutting much of the commentary coming his way must have felt to Foley, yet preciousness just wasn't his thing.

On the contrary, that dark evening in Paris his way was to shine a hard light on what Munster's predicament might have been saying about his own responsibility to keep nostalgia away from any forensic analysis.

"I have been here a long time, come through the schools and everything," he said that evening in France. "It's about winning. It's not about people. It's about getting results.

"Sport has no memory, no conscience. It doesn't care. You have got to be able to do a job and make sure you get results."

His name, his family's name, was already written so deep into the fabric of Munster and Irish rugby; he could have been forgiven seeking refuge in banality, in communicating some kind of self-important distance from the commotion building around him. But 'Axel' never played that game.

No matter your story, you could feel represented by him in some way because he bridged amateur and professional, rural and urban, frivolous and stern.

Axel played 62 times for Ireland, captaining his country on three occasions. He played in Munster's first ever European Cup game, against Swansea, in November 1995 and 11 years later led the province to that never-to-be forgotten coronation in the Millennium Stadium.

And through that great prairie of epochal change, Anthony Foley lost his place in the team (injuries apart) for just a single game.

"If I'm going to be remembered," he once said, "I'd like to be seen as a stubborn player, somebody who wouldn't give in."

He was, of course, so much more than that. He was a figurehead. He was an emblem. He played hard and without equivocation, yet conducted himself in a way that people liked to imagine represented something beyond rugby.

Foley, you see, believed there was a way for a man to be, no matter the atmosphere around him.

Last summer, when Munster appointed Rassie Erasmus as their first director of rugby, he communicated only welcome and respect for the former Springbok, despite the appointment clearly representing a dilution of his own status as head coach.

Foley just did not break stride, his innate humility over-riding any concern with dressing-room hierarchies.

And his spirit, palpably, outlives him now.

Ireland's first victory over the All Blacks in 111 years of trying was delivered in Chicago last month after the players honoured his memory by organising themselves into a figure of eight to face the Haka.

Reverse

Eerily, the scoreline of 40-29 was the exact reverse of the outcome when 'Axel' himself last played against New Zealand in 2001.

And the Munster players, so visibly ashen on that October Friday as they watched a coffin slip into the soil of Relig Nua Cemetery, found something remarkable within 24 hours to trounce Glasgow Warriors in an electrified Thomond. And that something has, palpably, been with them since.

Anthony Foley was many things in rugby but he was, above all, a man whose footprint was worth following. Someone who, as Olive put it beautifully in church, answered to values that were "so perfect".

Inducting him posthumously into our Hall of Fame is not a circumstance any of us would have chosen, but there can be little doubt that no recipient has ever been more worthy of the honour.

"Sport has no memory, no conscience. It doesn't care," he told us last January.

In death, Anthony Foley made it seem otherwise.

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