Sunday 19 January 2020

Foley's brave boys showed us we must stand up and fight

The sons of the late Anthony Foley, Tony (L) and Dan, join CJ Stander and the rest of the squad on the field after Saturday’s game SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
The sons of the late Anthony Foley, Tony (L) and Dan, join CJ Stander and the rest of the squad on the field after Saturday’s game SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Two small boys sang for their dad. They sang for all of us who were looking for a sign that Anthony Foley lives. I have been here in the sailboat stadium of Thomond for the miracle matches, but there was never anything to match the sing-song after the game on Saturday.

There were days when Munster were given no more chance of survival than a bubble on a pint and the Pope sent a team of investigators to validate the miracle. But the sing-song beat all.

The Munster team came back out on to the field after the game and formed a circle. Tony and Dan Foley, aged 11 and eight, sang shoulder to shoulder with their dad's team.

It was the beauty of it, the bravery of it , the decency of it - and, yes, the fight of it.

Their mother Olive pledged at her husband's funeral that she would fight with all her might. A mother's love is a tender, nurturing, ferocious love. The umbilical cord is never rightly severed.

I walked home from the game along by the River Shannon. The trees were dressed in the brown and gold shades of their autumn finery. A family of ducks swam in a line. The swan became graceful again when she went amphibious. The sky was blue and the river was as calm as a kiddies' padding pool. Limerick really is a lady.

A mother lifted her little girl up over the wall to show her the goings-on in the big river. "Don't drop me, Mom," she said.

"I will never drop you." And she pulled her girl in close to her. The little girl closed her eyes and smiled. She knew she would be minded and loved by her mother, no matter what.

And so here I am, well into middle age, and I miss my mother. Sometimes, I rock away on my mother's rocking chair. She had this notion that she would sit there in her old age, knitting caps. My mother knit enough caps to keep Beijing warm. I don't think she ever sat on that chair. My mother was too busy. The last year has been so tough. I miss her so much.

But then Olive spoke those words of hope and love.

"Anthony trusted me with almost everything: with the children, their schooling, the house, everything. I intend to honour that trust, and I am going to make sure that our two adored boys are going to grow up into good, solid men of integrity, and honesty, just like their dad. His values were perfect, we had great plans for the future. But the show will go on, and I'm going to stick to the plan," she said.

The show will go on, but there's more. 'Stand Up And Fight' is the song her boys sang for us in Thomond. I understood what her message was, there by the banks of the Shannon.

We owe a sacred duty to those who came before us to carry on fighting. It's more than coping. For the past year, I was coping. No more than that, and glad I was at the time that I was able to cope. Now it's time to start fighting. My mother was a fighter. She swept drunks out the door with the sweeping brush.

Thanks, Olive, for giving hope and guidance to all of us who have ever lost a loved one.

The Munster team have been going through a few tough years. Anthony was trying to build a new team when some of the greatest players who ever played the game retired. He could have taken shortcuts. Bought in a few bin-end players from overseas as stop-gaps. But Foley wanted to build something that would last. Olive had it right: "His values were perfect."

I wasn't even one of his best friends. I was one of his many friends, but sometimes we would talk off the record. I'm sure Axel wouldn't mind me telling you what he said about his players.

"They're young and they will make mistakes. There's no shortcuts. They are learning and you learn from mistakes," he said.

And then I asked him if they had the heart for it. "They have," he replied. "They are a great bunch of honest lads who will come good."

The Munster players took in every word Olive said there in the church. She told them her husband loved them. And they stood up and fought for him on Saturday.

For those of you who do not follow rugby, please bear with me for a line or two. The team played the Foley way, the Munster way, with a controlled madness that in some way mirrors who we are. Munster as a people were never, ever subjugated or beaten down. We always fought back. We all have to belong to a value system that brings us back to standing up and fighting. To find a common cause, and sing as one. To have fun and to cut loose.

As Noel Healy, the president of Shannon - and Foley's friend - said: "We are all the one."

Our new head coach Rassie Erasmus acknowledged after the game that he just followed the Foley template. Rassie was generous and even though he, too, played his part, the South African disposed of any ego. He knew enough to let well alone. They are his boys now, and his team were a Munster mix of swirling dervish and controlled dressage.

We drove at Glasgow with the beautiful siege engine known as the rolling maul and our scrums sent the Scots out over the back wall into Ballynanty and beyond. Munster became Munster again. The penny dropped. The kids knew their lessons.

And just when we thought our tear ducts had run dry, out came the two Foley boys. The smiling boys were delighted to be asked out on the field of Thomond, arm in arm with their heroes.

The stadium went hush without being asked. It was the best of order for the Foleys. And they started off the sing-song. The first verse was just Tony, Dan and their dad's other young lads, about 30 of them.

Then we all joined in.

Irish Independent

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