Friday 9 December 2016

Munster 'Stand Up and Fight' at emotional send-off for their great number eight Foley

Barry Duggan at Thomond Park

Published 24/10/2016 | 02:30

Simon Zebo hugs President Michael D Higgins after the game. Photo: Inpho/Dan Sheridan
Simon Zebo hugs President Michael D Higgins after the game. Photo: Inpho/Dan Sheridan

A week later, and it was still hard to believe he is gone. For those who worship Munster rugby - which is a pretty extensive congregation - Thomond Park in Limerick is their cathedral. It is a place of worship.

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More than 26,000 came to pay homage to Anthony Foley - their fallen captain, player and coach.

Leinster players stand for a minute’s silence in memory of Anthony Foley before their match against Montpellier yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Leinster players stand for a minute’s silence in memory of Anthony Foley before their match against Montpellier yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

It was a traumatic and emotional week for all concerned with the southern province. Axel's sudden death in Paris led to an unprecedented outpouring of grief and collective reunification of old teammates in the cruellest of circumstances.

That heartache will continue for some time - but his family and friends will have an army to call on for support and comfort.

All of Irish rugby is hurting from the death. Ulster fans sang 'The Fields of Athenry' at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on Saturday night and Leinster players wore Munster red before their match in Montpellier yesterday.

But Thomond Park was the focal point. The stadium has played host to some amazing scenes over the decades - perhaps none more so than Saturday.

Anthony Foley. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Anthony Foley. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Big strong men dressed in club blazers and ties complete with cauliflower ears, who previously knocked lumps out of each other, cried and hugged. Their sniffles and tears soon gave way to laughter and smiles as old tales were recalled.

At the Shannon clubhouse, there was a constant queue of people to sign a book of condolences.

Nearby, the tribute of flags, flowers, jerseys, scarves and children's handwritten messages formed a shrine. The mementos came from all over the country. 'Legend', 'Watch over us from above Axel', 'The last High King of Thomond'.

Inside the ground, the atmosphere was a cauldron of emotion. Sadness, laughter, courage, silence, deafening roars and most of all, enormous pride. A stadium proud of their former captain and coach and soon it transpired a team determined to honour him in the best possible fashion. 'There is an Isle' echoed hauntingly across Limerick and an 'Axel 8' mosaic tribute was raised in the West Stand during a minute's silence.

In reality, poor Glasgow Warriors didn't stand a chance. This was a throwback to the heady days of old when Foley, O'Connell, Hayes and O'Gara ruled Europe and Thomond Park rocked.

An angry and hurt Munster pack dominated and crucified their opponents time and time again.

Even when reduced to 14 men in the first half, the red onslaught never ceased. It was fearsome. Tyler Bleyendaal, Jaco Taute and Simon Zebo attacked relentlessly and Munster ran out 38-17 winners.

Tony McEnery brought his son Gavin (9) from Clarecastle, Co Clare, to the match. They echoed the views of all. "We just wanted to be here to support Munster and say thanks to Anthony for all he did for us. Today is a very special day here," Tony said.

The final whistle sounded but nobody left. Nobody wanted to leave and nobody wants to contemplate a future without Anthony Foley. But that is what is left in store.

Afterwards, Munster captain Peter O'Mahony spoke of Anthony's wife, Olive, and their two sons: "God, I hope we did them proud today."

Of that there is no doubt.

And with a full stadium proudly singing 'The Fields of Athenry' and a clear blue sky overhead as if someone was watching down, the Munster squad returned to the field with Anthony's sons, Dan and Tony. Everyone belted out the Munster rugby anthem - 'Stand Up and Fight'.

Rest assured of that. Motivated by the loss of perhaps their most famous son, Munster rugby will continue to fight on.

Irish Independent

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