Saturday 16 December 2017

Axel was able to deal with every situation

Foley was professional in everything he did, and a dry wit helped

Anthony Foley calling the shots at a Munster training session in UL earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile
Anthony Foley calling the shots at a Munster training session in UL earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

There was a wonderful snapshot of three generations of a family doing what they loved most last February when Munster travelled to Scotland for a re-arranged Pro12 fixture with Glasgow Warriors.

The game was switched to the appropriately-named Rugby Park in Kilmarnock as Glasgow's home pitch at Scotstoun was encountering flooding problems.

And as the switch meant the game having to move to a Friday night at the home of Kilmarnock FC, Munster opted to fly in and out of Scotland on the same day on a charter flight from Shannon. It was mid-term break in the schools so there was a bonus for Anthony Foley's two young lads, Tony and Dan, who came along for the day trip, with his father Brendan being charged with keeping an eye on them.

The morning flight landed at Prestwick Airport, and with the Munster squad being billeted at the Park Hotel adjacent to the stadium, Brendan Foley took the two young lads off for the afternoon.

"Look at them going," said Axel. "They think they are going to milk him, but they have another thing coming. He'll walk the legs off them!"

I couldn't get that memory out of my head last Sunday night in Paris as we tried to digest the shocking developments of the day.

Deserted

Little did any of us think as we left a deserted and freezing Prestwick Airport that Friday night in February that the next time Munster and Glasgow Warriors would clash, it would be against a backdrop of such horrendous grief.

We saw more of Axel last season than anyone intended but with results not quite working out he seemed more compelled than ever to put himself in front of the media. He never took a step backwards on the field and he was determined that nobody else was put in the firing line with things not going well.

He was thoroughly professional throughout. He might have been raging inside, but he never let that come across.

That's not easy for any coach and, it's fair to say, Axel probably had a bit more work to do than a lot of other coaches when it came to the media.

But he accepted that it was part of the job. I dealt with him on many fronts. One of the toughest jobs for any coach when dealing with the media is handling flash interviews for broadcast rights holders when they are coming off the field.

I often interviewed him for RTé Radio in such circumstances and was surprised by the level of composure he was able to muster - one of his predecessors responded to a post-match radio question before with a shrug of the shoulders!

It was always professional with Axel. During the midweek press conferences there would usually be only three or four reporters, including a couple of local lads, present but it would still be carried out in a formal manner.

Shortly afterwards, as I drove back to Galway, I would often interview him by phone to ghost-write his column for this newspaper and it would be like talking to a different person.

Even a dozen years after I stepped down from the position, he still saw me as the Connacht manager and while he would crack on about something at the Sportsground, it was clear he had huge admiration for what Pat Lam was doing there.

Handled

Foley accepted that the media was part and parcel of professional rugby and could be used to a team's advantage if handled properly. Like most coaches, he accepted that when he spoke to, or was quizzed by, journalists that he was dealing with people who had considerably less knowledge and experience of the game than he had.

Some coaches struggle to deal with that imbalance, but not Foley. I don't recall, and am not aware, of a single incident where umbrage was taken with something about him in the media since he went into coaching.

What he did care about, over and above anything else, was Munster's standing and the happenings of the past few years clearly pained him.

In August, after Rassie Erasmus came in, Foley spoke eloquently about the need to restore his beloved Thomond Park as a fortress.

"I think that's an area that I'd like to be involved in rectifying, building up that fortress again, building up that atmosphere, making Thomond Park a place that not alone do people go in there, I'd like to change it to the fact that they want to go there, that they are fighting for tickets to go to the game.

"You'd love to change it and have it back to where it was that people are begging to get into Thomond Park."

None of us thought then that it would be his death two months later at the age of 42 which would lead to Thomond Park becoming a citadel again.

Irish Independent

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