Friday 24 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Win or lose, trek to a new normality has only just begun for Foley's comrades

Trauma could propel or suffocate Munster for emotional Thomond return - but players must not feel defeat would dishonour fallen coach

Munster players arrive for the funeral of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley in Killaloe
yesterday. Photo: INPHO
Munster players arrive for the funeral of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley in Killaloe yesterday. Photo: INPHO
Munster and Ireland players, Peter Stringer, Frankie Sheehan, Paul O Connell , Alan Quinlan and Mick O Driscoll pictured outside at St Flannan’s church. Photo: Frank McGrath
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The prologue to his book Axel - A Memoir' begins with the lines "Time to make myself scarce. Only 45 minutes to kick-off and I feel like I've out-stayed my welcome."

Anthony Foley is in the North dressing-room of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium just before the 2008 European Cup final in Cardiff and suddenly overcome by a profound sense of separation from what now looms ahead. Five days earlier, Declan Kidney had phoned with the news that he would not be required to tog out.

So Foley makes his escape, surmising: "I'm no good to anyone here."

Maybe the natural conceit of today, the unavoidable human impulse, is to wonder if Munster will be strengthened by an invisible hand in Thomond Park. The Glasgow players must surely feel they are all but intruding upon some intimate family gathering after all, and Foley, I suspect, would dislike that.

The temptation to find God in small things when grief disorientates a community is ever-present, but the innate pragmatist in Anthony Foley would be calling a dressing-room to order here.

He would be weighing up the challenge of how to bring a group of young men from the low murmur of prayers in a graveyard to, one day later, the thunder and natural enmity of the rugby field.

Gaping

Because that's a gaping, un-natural step to take, to somehow park or suspend or compartmentalise a week of deep emotional trauma and go play.

On some level, it will even feel absurd. On another, maybe it might seem the most natural expression of solidarity.

People need people at these times. The Glasgow hordes pouring into Thomond will certainly know that they are connecting to something, the least important part of which will be the 80 minutes of rugby. They will have seen yesterday's images from the hunched town of Killaloe where the entire Irish rugby family gathered in waxy-faced communion with Foley's own.

They will have absorbed the immensity of the grief, the sense of lives altered at an almost molecular level by a great man's passing, evoking what Hugh McIlvanney wrote of Jock Stein's death at a World Cup game between Scotland and Wales at Ninian Park in '85.

"For some of us," wrote McIlvanney "it was indeed as if our spirits, our very lives, had been burglarised."

Is it even right to play this game of rugby today? Will the very gearing of the occasion not feel wrong, somehow disrespectful?

We ask because at some point, when the ceremonial courtesies are spent and the referee puts a whistle to his mouth, the same Thomond that was still as a church as the hearse passed on Wednesday night will inevitably become helplessly raucous and prejudiced again and, quite possibly, pre-occupied with turning the day into some kind of parable.

When hurling goalkeeper, James McGarry's wife was one of two Kilkenny women killed in a traffic accident during the summer of '07, Brian Cody understood that the best a game could do for anyone at that moment was offer fleeting distraction.

The tragedy happened in the week Kilkenny were due to play Galway in an All-Ireland quarter-final, and Henry Shefflin recalls in his autobiography: "It felt inappropriate to even talk about hurling at first. Brian called us into a circle the first night back training and he spoke beautifully.

"Just something simple about how all we could do now was be the best we could be. Vanessa was remembered. Mary Lonergan too.

"He could, I suppose, have come out with stuff about trying to honour their memory by winning the All-Ireland. But, then, would that mean you dishonoured them if you lost?"

Being the best that they can be is all the Munster players can promise today. And who can predict what that will amount to?

It is possible they will have trouble breathing, let alone playing. This time last week, Foley's voice flooded their world and it can't yet seem real that he is lost now. Yet, suddenly, they must draw down the blinds on all of this and hope, somehow, that emotion yields to performance.

There is no formula to follow here, simply a compulsion to keep on living.

After Tyrone footballer Cormac McAnallen died suddenly from an electrical failure in his heart rhythm in March 2004, Mickey Harte chose never to reference him overtly in the All-Ireland champions' dressing-room. Yet there was an understanding among the Tyrone players that so much of what their manager communicated was plumbed into a desire to honour their fallen colleague.

When Tyrone were beaten in that year's Championship by Mayo, some players even spoke of a feeling that they had let McAnallen down.

Yet just over one year later, the Sam Maguire back in their dressing-room, Harte articulated a view that to have retained it in '04 might have felt faintly inappropriate. "It was maybe not the time to return to the euphoria we felt the season before," he reflected.

"It had no place. That is not to say we didn't try to win it but, on reflection, it had no place."

Whatever unspools in Thomond this afternoon, it won't be a day for high-fives or chest-bumping. It will be one with the wash of grief still drenching everything and everyone, a day weighed down with energy that nobody is truly qualified to process.

Maybe the hardest part of sudden death is the brutal timetable it imposes. The sense of the earth still turning, indifferent to the disorientation of those left groping blindly in the dark. Schedules still need to be honoured, obligations met.

Stephen Ferris has written about the trauma visited upon Ulster's dressing-room when Nevin Spence died with his father and brother in a farming accident four years ago.

To some degree, Ferris had been down this road before as a teenage team-mate of John McCall, who collapsed and died during a game against New Zealand at the U-19 World Cup in 2004.

Shockingly, the news of McCall's death was communicated to his colleagues by palpably traumatised team officials before the players had even left the field in Durban.

Ulster did everything by the book after the Spence family tragedy, yet Ferris recalls the time as one of abject emotional confusion.

He wrote in his autobiography: "Some of the guys at Ulster are in bits. Some of the young lads, or guys that have played only one or two games with Nev, are taking it so hard. Bawling. Not knowing who to turn to or who to talk to.

"I drive in the next morning and still cannot get my head around it. Twenty-four hours before, I was with Willie Faloon and a couple of guys kicking a ball around the car-park. Nev was there as well. Twenty-four hours later and the guy is in a box, ready to be buried in a couple of days' time. A few of the guys are in turmoil."

After the funeral, Ferris recalls feeling momentarily paralysed as he tried to sign a book of condolence at Ballynahinch Rugby Club. It is as if, suddenly, the gravity of the tragedy has registered.

"I get the pen and just stand there," he remembers. "I start reading all the messages. I keep reading and reading and reading. Flipping the pages back.

"What do I write here? There is a queue of about ten people behind me. Flick over another page, then another. It starts to sink in: 'Oh my God, he'd dead. He is buried; in the ground. I am never going to see him again'."

Refuge

For the rest of the season, Ulster played with the initials 'NS' stitched onto every jersey. They even went on a 13-game winning run and, in time, maybe the rhythms of a professional athlete's life offered some kind of refuge from the horror. Perhaps the term 'soldiering together' temporarily found more meaning.

But, for a time, they were as Ferris remembers "in turmoil".

So, if it's true that victory for Munster today would be an eloquent tribute to Foley from devastated colleagues, defeat cannot be allowed convey any kind of failure. The players will honour him even more in the future by living lives faithful to the qualities that so distinguished him as a head coach.

In other words, by avoiding the trap of self-importance when engaging in the daily nothings of a professional sportsman's life.

Today will be awful in ways, redemptive in others. It will take the focus from a Co Clare graveyard and maybe, temporarily, even feed the illusion of normality. And people, even those who casually admired Anthony Foley from a distance, will see in it a spirituality far transcending the game that defined him as a man.

But when it's done, win or lose, the journey towards some kind of new normality will have only just begun.

Irish Independent

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