Monday 19 February 2018

‘As much as Anthony Foley typified everything that Munster Rugby stood for, he first and foremost bled the black and blue of Shannon’

At Lansdowne Road in 1998, Cian Tracey was among thousands of Shannon fans who invaded the pitch after another glorious triumph for the club and its most famous son

Anthony Foley lifts the 1998 AIL trophy at Lansdowne Road alongside team-mate and friend Alan Quinlan
Anthony Foley lifts the 1998 AIL trophy at Lansdowne Road alongside team-mate and friend Alan Quinlan
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The word had filtered through to the club that Anthony Foley would make his international debut the following week against England.

A proud day for everyone associated with Shannon as you can imagine, but there was one slight issue.

Shannon were due to play Blackrock in a top-of-the-table All-Ireland League clash the coming Saturday and they knew the importance of having their influential No 8 in their starting XV.

The club, however, also accepted the Irish management's policy of players not playing for their clubs and instead resting the week before an international match.

Try as they might, there was no talking to Foley and sure enough he made the trip to Dublin and played a crucial role in Shannon sealing a victory that would propel them to their first ever AIL success.

The following Saturday, Foley made his Ireland debut in the Five Nations meeting with England at Lansdowne Road, and he marked the occasion by scoring a try.

Exchanging blows with Trevor Brennan of St Mary’s College in 1999. Photo: Sportsfile
Exchanging blows with Trevor Brennan of St Mary’s College in 1999. Photo: Sportsfile


He would go on to become Shannon's first Irish senior captain when he led his country out against Samoa in 2001.

These were the days when the AIL meant everything to supporters and players alike.

As much as Foley typified everything that Munster Rugby stood for, he first and foremost bled the black and blue of Shannon.

Taking on Blackrock’s Ron Somers. Photo: Sportsfile
Taking on Blackrock’s Ron Somers. Photo: Sportsfile

That league title in 1995 was the beginning of something special, not just for Shannon as a club but for the career of the then 21-year-old Foley, whose reputation was rapidly growing.

Shannon went on to win four AIL titles in a row, an achievement that has still never been matched. The Limerick club won 44 of their 48 matches in that period. Remarkably, Foley didn't miss a single one.

The Foleys' Shannon roots go way back. Anthony's father Brendan is another club stalwart. Seeing his son take over as club captain in the 1997/98 season remains one of his proudest moments.

There was a huge responsibility leading Shannon back then, especially as they were chasing their fourth consecutive title.

But Foley had long been one of the main leaders of that team, even as early as he made his debut against Young Munster in 1992.

His commitment to play that game in Blackrock has never been forgotten by anyone in the club. Nothing typified his commitment to the cause more than that day in Dublin.

Shannon would meet their old foes Garryowen in the 1998 decider. Garryowen had watched the balance of power shift across the city to Shannon and they were desperate to win back the title that had been snatched from their grasp in 1995.

Forty buses packed with Shannon supporters left Limerick that day, and thousands more travelled by car and train, all flocking to Lansdowne Road where around 25,000 people savoured what was then the biggest day in the Irish rugby calendar.

Shannon edged a pulsating contest 15-9 and Foley was duly named man of the match. A pitch invasion ensued (this writer in the midst of it) at the final whistle, and the proud Killaloe man stood alongside another one of Shannon's late sons Frankie O'Flynn as the chorus of Shannon's anthem There is an Isle rang around Dublin 4.

Throughout their four-in-a-row success, Shannon's back-row trio of Alan Quinlan, Eddie Halvey and Foley was the envy of most teams in Europe, let alone Ireland. Along with the likes of Mick Galwey and Andrew Thompson, the trio were the heartbeat of Shannon.

Abrasive, passionate and hugely physical, Foley always knew how to handle himself on the pitch during those glory AIL days.

In 1999, he and Trevor Brennan, who was playing for St Mary's, didn't quite see eye to eye in an incident and Foley let his feelings be known with one swing of his right fist. Brennan gave as good as he got, however, and it was the Leinster man who was shown a red card.

A proud clubman, Foley has never forgotten his roots. In 1989 he captained St Munchin's College to the Munster Junior Cup. He wasn't so lucky two years later when his side came unstuck in the Senior decider against a PBC outfit coached by a certain Declan Kidney.

Foley's face is plastered throughout the corridors of Munchin's, where people to this day continue to talk about the hulking young fella regarded as one of the best ever schools players.

The Limerick school have only managed to win two more Junior Cups since Foley lifted it 27 years ago but the last time they did, he was invited back to the school.

Back in the Corbally nursery in 1998, the celebrations were in full flow and Foley, fresh from his AIL success with Shannon, arrived with the cup tucked under his arm.

The party went on late into the night and the AIL Cup never left his sight. It meant everything to him, and seeing his alma mater winning the Junior Cup again made it an unforgettable year for Foley.

He quickly graduated to the Ireland Schools side and in 1992 he lined out against a fearsome New Zealand outfit. His opposite number that day was Jonah Lomu - another rugby legend who was recently lost far too soon.

Foley played his 88th and final AIL game for Shannon in 2007. Fittingly enough the opposition was Blackrock. Having won five AIL titles, he remains one of the most decorated players in the league's history.

There is an Isle contains the key line: 'But because it is my native land. And my home, my home is there.'

Shannon will always be Anthony Foley's home and although the club will be a lesser place without him, the memories he leaves behind will be talked about forever.

Irish Independent

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