Thursday 23 February 2017

Neil Francis: When it was easier to let it slip, Anthony Foley came back twice the player

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The Ireland team that Anthony Foley made his debut in, against England in 1995. Back row, from left: Terry Kingston, Maurice Field, Simon Geoghegan, David Corkery, Paddy Johns, Neil Francis, Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley, Niall Woods, Eric Elwood, Gary Halpin and Gabriel Fulcher. Front row, from left: Paul Burke, Conor O'Shea, Phil Danaher, Niall Hogan, Ken Reid, IRFU President, Brendan Mullin, Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood and Nick Popplewell Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
The Ireland team that Anthony Foley made his debut in, against England in 1995. Back row, from left: Terry Kingston, Maurice Field, Simon Geoghegan, David Corkery, Paddy Johns, Neil Francis, Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley, Niall Woods, Eric Elwood, Gary Halpin and Gabriel Fulcher. Front row, from left: Paul Burke, Conor O'Shea, Phil Danaher, Niall Hogan, Ken Reid, IRFU President, Brendan Mullin, Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood and Nick Popplewell Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Neil Francis was there when Anthony Foley made his Ireland debut. Here, he remembers the Axel he knew.

Glories of our blood and state

Are shadows, not substantial things;

There is no armour against Fate;

Death lays his icy hand on kings:

Sceptre and Crown

Must tumble down,

And in the dust be equal made

With the poor crooked scythe and spade

- James Shirley

Last Saturday the newspapers recorded the death of Mickey Byrne, a noted hurler in the great Tipperary teams of the 1940s and '50s. The Rattler, as he was known, shuffled off this mortal coil at the grand age of 93. What a life! The great memories sustained him until he checked out. That is the way to go.

The following day we wistfully argued the inequality of life. We woke and attended to our daily routine only to find that a giant oak had fallen in the forest - nobody saw or heard it fall - but it was definitely on the forest floor. Gone.

The sense of diminishment with the news of Anthony Foley's death at the age of 42 - it was difficult to convey the feeling of emptiness. The cessation of life of such a vibrant and forceful personality, it brought perspective on our own mortality. The sheer randomness of his death. If fate could take someone like him, now, then what about the rest of us?

Every day on this planet 150,000 people die - last Sunday we were concerned only for a single one of those unfortunates. In death there is no court of appeal. There are no second chances. There are no lifetime guarantees. In our minds maybe we thought one more fight for the underdog - a sporting chance. But no - sporting heroes are not immune from the ultimate sanction. The finality of it all is unbearable at times.

The nation grieves mainly because of the human tragedy but also by association through sport. The term that is used today is because we have skin in the game. Anybody who watched Anthony Foley was by extension a shareholder in him; so when someone who has given so much to the nation - well, we can legitimately say a small part of us is gone. The foundations of our game are based on people like him.

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Ayrton Senna

On Monday night, I purposefully sought out a copy of the DVD of the documentary about Ayrton Senna called 'Senna'. Killaloe and Sao Paolo are in a parallel universe - yet they managed to rear two men whose integrity of spirit were unquestioned and whose approach to life were uncompromisingly direct.

Senna lost his life at the Tamburello corner in San Marino. He was just 34. If ever a farewell told you what the nation thought of someone, well you could look no further than Senna's funeral in Sao Paolo. Three million people lined the street. In three days of national mourning there were unprecedented scenes of grief.

Traumatised fans spoke with their hearts drawing on what their hero's qualities evoked. "He was an idol for me. He represented the best of Brazil." "Brazilian people need food, education, health and a little bit of joy and now that joy is gone."

It is a very powerful documentary and it reflects the devastation visited upon an adoring nation by the sudden death of a superstar.

Anthony's death and the circumstances of it mirror that event in a smaller but no less powerful way. How dear we hold our sporting heroes.

There is a cachet and affection in our spirit for heroes, particularly if they are young or tragically taken. The Brazilian people are passionate about their sporting heroes - no less the Irish and certainly no less than Limerick people.

I played in the game against England where he got his first cap and he acquitted himself very well in august company. He made the plane for the World Cup in 1995 and only played against Japan.

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Thereafter, the graph in his performances dipped considerably and the promise he had shown as a schoolboy looked like it would wither as distractions and the crossover to the professional game took its toll and he disappeared from the Irish scene for a good while with many saying that he would never recover himself or his potential.

It is one of the great motivating factors in sport - no alternative. He looked around at his circumstance and his heritage and decided that fulfilling his destiny wasn't really going to be a part job. I met him in January 2000 and his demeanour and attitude had changed totally from the time he was first capped.

"You've changed."

"Not really."

"Yes you have, I don't even know you any more."

"Come up and see my room."

"Bomb site?"

"Bomb site."

He was the messiest roommate in the world - that still stick with him - but he was a different animal and that new-found sense of responsibility, well it was always there; he just had to bring it out of himself.

Was there a chance he could have followed the line of least resistance and fallen onto the five and dime of wasted talents? Absolutely.

In all the eulogies this week nobody really mentioned the wilderness years and that really misses the point about his career and his character - the fact that it was based on redemption and rehabilitation. When it was easier to wander into the desert, he came back strong and became twice the player he could have been.

His values were clear. There were no contradictions in his approach. He willingly became a yardstick for others and had a forest-dark attitude to winning. He was larcenously competitive yet fair.

Florence Nightingale was asked to reflect on her incredible career in nursing and she said: "I attribute my success to this, I never gave or took an excuse."

It mirrors, does it not, the way that Anthony played the game and the way he acted in life?

The universal truth about this tragedy is that good people are not immune from bad things happening to them. We get an appreciation of the depth and scale of reaction from a shocked nation on the death of someone who was so much more than a sportsman.

As we wait for this week to pass, we refer to Aeschylus to sum up the moment.

"There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief."

Requiescat in Pace.

Irish Independent

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