Tuesday 26 September 2017

We leave the city of light bathed in tears... Ireland has lost, but a family is left devastated

Munster supporters during a rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ at Stade Yves-Du-Manoir
in Paris after news of Anthony Foley's death broke. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Munster supporters during a rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ at Stade Yves-Du-Manoir in Paris after news of Anthony Foley's death broke. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

We only came to Paris, this beautiful city of light and sound and love and gaiety, to watch a game of rugby.

Instead, we leave it this morning bathed in tears, and the sun, somehow defiantly, is still casting its bright light upon all it surveys.

A fan places a teddy bear next to other tributes outside Thomand Park in Limerick. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A fan places a teddy bear next to other tributes outside Thomand Park in Limerick. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

But in so many hearts, there is but darkness.

"He was in a Shannon jersey before he could even walk," says the veteran radio broadcaster Len Dineen, a former player from Anthony's equally renowned father Brendan's era, recalling the time when the man would bring the boy into the dressing-room.

This week, that father will have to bury his son.

Anthony Foley was born into rugby passion, he left this earth still being consumed by it - possibly to his dying breath.

We shall never know. All we know is the magic and the joy and memories he bequeathed in such a criminally curtailed life.

"We were just saying, we felt that we were living a nightmare," says Jane Flannery, mother of Jerry, Foley's fellow coach and former colleague in the 2006 Heineken Cup-winning side.

"We felt that we would somehow wake up and it wouldn't be true. Unfortunately, it is true. It is very hard to absorb the reality of it.

"He died in the line of duty. He was waiting for a match to be played today.

A supporter sheds a tear. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
A supporter sheds a tear. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"We had associations going back to Shannon - Jerry played there with Munchins, Shannon and Munster. He played in that 2006 team. We're a part of his history, all the memories he created.

"There's the joy he brought into so many houses, the leadership qualities he had. He was the figurehead of Munster. He moved from the amateur era into the professional era.

"The whole history of his family... he was Munster to the core."

After the 202 appearances for Munster and the 62 caps for Ireland, the triumph of captaining the Heineken Cup winners in 2006, ending an Odyssean quest for that Holy Grail, Foley was latterly part of the coaching set-up with Munster.

Having been successful with the Ireland A side and Munster A, then on secondment briefly to the national side for a time, he had been head coach for the past two seasons with Munster.

Fans pay a silent tribute outside the stadium. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Fans pay a silent tribute outside the stadium. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

They had not been successful in Europe, an arena where Foley and those he had led had determined would be the benchmark for how Munster would be viewed at home and abroad.

A new South African coaching team had been brought in above his head but, rather than wallow in the initial disappointment, Foley had, to those who knew him best, absorbed the disappointment and ensured he would be determined to do his best in the new role.

It had seemed a weight had been lifted; had he not stayed at Munster, it is questionable whether he might have had any other opportunities in rugby.

Read more: 'Heartbroken. We have lost an incredible man' - Ronan O' Gara pays tribute to Anthony Foley

Read more: 'A giant falls': World of sport unites to pay tribute to Munster and Ireland legend Anthony Foley

This was the life he wanted. This was his life. It was thought nothing could take it away from him now.

"With the new director of rugby, it probably lifted some of the pressure and stress off him," agreed Flannery. "But Munster never like to lose, and this was a significant game for him."

Still, he was in good spirits on the flight over on Friday evening, a scheduled Aer Lingus plane which also carried some supporters and media.

"I saw him at the baggage carousel," says Dineen. "I went over and wished him luck. He nodded at me, he smiled and that was it. That was the last time I spoke to him. The previous time was his last press conference 10 days ago, his first press conference in his new role, and he was in great form. I asked him how was he fixed in the coaching set-up.

"He said it was all fine, adding 'I don't have to talk to you lads all week, and I just concentrate on the forwards - the only thing I miss is my cup of coffee with you every week'. We won't have any more. I just can't believe it."

Foley was an indomitable spirit on the field and, for those outside his circle, somewhat impenetrable off it. He didn't take prisoners on the field or suffer fools off it.

But his loyalty was inextricably bound up with his character. Once you were a proven, faithful friend, or forged mutual bonds of trust on the field in times of strife, that was a bond that would last for all time.

Or so, until tragedy so cruelly cast its dark cloud, we had presumed.

"I am sitting in Paris trying to distil the horror and the shock, simply being stunned at the news of Anthony Foley's passing," says Liam Toland, a former colleague and combatant.

"A true friend. Our paths would cross every few months or even every few years, but our friendship would pick up straight away from way back when we started in 1988, when I was playing for St Clement's against the great Anthony Foley, the number eight for St Munchins, on the muddy back pitch in Corbally.

"That is where the relationship started - and to think I am here in Paris and it is finished, 27 years later. I can't help but think of his wife, Olive, and his family, Brendan and his three sisters, the community of Killaloe, Shannon, the Mid-West, Munster and beyond.

"A wonderfully generous guy. He would do anything for you, and I might only meet him every couple of years. So modest about his achievements - but then all the Foleys are like that.

"Rosie (his sister) swam the channel and played for Ireland so many times, and Brendan - they're so unique.

"We're all at a loss in losing such a huge friend. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity of knowing him."

If the sadness among the sporting community and the Irish public is seismic, that is nothing to the grief stunning those within his intimate circle. Friends, colleagues, family. Sadie Doyle, a Shannon mother of Irish international Aoife, described him as "an icon for Limerick city and county - he was a wonderful hero for Munster and Shannon."

His passing leaves a vacuum. We can't begin to comprehend the chasm that exists now for those who knew the man behind the icon.

"Anthony was a guy who had a very hard shell," Dineen says. "But once you pierced that shell, you had a friend for life. People called him grumpy, this that and the other. He was just a deep thinker on the game.

"His sister Rose and his wife Olive used to slag him about his persona, but he loved a joke."

Born into rugby, it was the theatre in which he played his final act, too. Ireland has lost; a devastated family suffers so much more.

But as we fight back the tears and make contact with those at home closest to us in these grimmest of moments, the sun still shines. Defiantly.

Some lights are determined not to fade.

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