Wednesday 29 January 2020

Billy Keane: Honest, fearless, loyal and funny - for Foley it was never about 'me', always about 'us'

Anthony Foley holds his then five-week-old son Tony at the launch of the new Munster Rugby jersey in 2005. Photo: Kieran Clancy
Anthony Foley holds his then five-week-old son Tony at the launch of the new Munster Rugby jersey in 2005. Photo: Kieran Clancy
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Anthony Foley wore his heart like a crest on his Munster shirt and in the end the heart that beat so strong in the heat of battle gave out on him.

Munster mourns and Ireland weeps. 'Too young' and 'too soon' are the words we speak. He was the kind of man we felt would shoulder the old guard's caskets. He was the keeper of the flame and the keeper of the faith.

The heart that sustained us all and gave us identity and unity beats no more. All of our hearts are broken. But that was the public man

He was a dad too and a son and a brother and a husband. I know his family. They are the kindest and the nicest. The shock must have been truly awful.

His dad Brendan was there in Paris to hold his boy in his arms. That much we can be thankful for. And how proud he was of his son who carried on the tradition with Shannon, Munster and Ireland.

The Foleys are an emotional, loving family and I just can't get the image of the dad and son out of my head. Brendan would gladly have swapped places.

Yes, his dad can be proud. His son was honest, fearless, loyal and funny.

Like the rest of us, he had his moments of self-doubt. The job as Munster head coach was demanding and at times the criticism was unrelenting. It couldn't be good for you. But Anthony didn't throw a fit of pique when he was asked to share the coaching role last summer. For Foley, it was never about the 'me', but all about the 'us'.

Munster, Shannon and Ireland were his passion but his wife Olive and their two boys were his life. He was a family man first. He adored his wife and his sons. He really did and this just isn't the usual obituary blather. Olive is lovely and she sings. I was there when we were beaten and she lifted her man with her words and smiles and laughs.

We were good old pals. I always stuck up for him because I had great faith in him as a man and as a coach. I hugged his sweaty jersey in the press conference when we won the Heineken Cup for the first time in 2006. I broke all the rules. Foley was the captain. "Hey," he said, "I'll bet you're dying to write about that. Don't forget to spell my name right."

I used to call him The Holy of Foleys and he was just that for all of us who followed him.

I'm watching the TV now. The Munster fans are singing 'The Fields of Athenry' outside the Stade Colombes where Munster were supposed to be playing. Lonely lie the fields around Thomond Park. We are good to each other when it matters most.

Foley was the link between the strands that make up Munster rugby. His dad beat the All Blacks in 1978. Anthony played when rugby was amateur and then he was a pro when we were the champions of Europe in 2006. The bond firmed and followed on when he was made assistant coach and then head coach. His story is the story of Munster. Foley captained his country and played for Ireland more than 60 times.

They are just showing our hero now on TV, back in 2006 when he was our captain in Cardiff. His little boy is in his arms. So happy he is there out on the pitch with 80,000 of us singing our hearts out. But this time 'The Fields' is not a Paris lament but a Cardiff te deum.

We won at last. And Foley is babysitting. That was him all over. Family first.

I'm thinking back to a chat we had many years ago. It was all about self-deprecation with Foley. It was his way of maintaining his modest demeanour, which is a huge part of the Munster psyche. Big heads are shrunk more often in the Munster dressing room than by blowpipers in the Amazon back waters.

I asked: "Foley, how come you seem to run faster than the lads you are playing against, even though they are faster than you?"

"I start before them" was his answer.

And it was true. He always made the right decisions on the pitch. Up he'd peep from the back of the scrum and then when he could see the space, off he'd go. He was over the line even before the opposition sentinels raised the alarm.

"If Napoleon had Foley as a general, they'd be speaking French in Moscow" are words I wrote.

"Will you stop," he said.

Jonathan Sexton told me of Foley's lines to the Irish team when he was defence coach under Declan Kidney. The call was 'a warrior is brought off the field on his shield'. He was very nice to a young Leinster kid back then.

Foley was respected and admired all over the rugby world.

There's a text from Keith Wood, his team mate, close friend and near neighbour.

I told Woody I could hardly see the laptop with the tears.

"I can't stop crying myself," was his reply.

Mick Galwey, or Gaillimh as Munster people call him, is in a bad way.

Anthony was in Kilkenny last weekend for Gaillimh's fiftieth. I'm thinking now of Bob Dylan's line: "When she cries, she cries just like a little girl". These two tough, big men, Gaillimh and Woody, are crying like small boys for their lost friend.

Gaillimh can barely talk in between the gulps. "Last week we were having a pint together and he was telling me if I was playing nowadays I'd be too small for mascot."

He pauses for air. "Axel (his nickname) took over from me as captain of Munster and do you know even though I knew I was finished and was sad over that, the relief was there that the right man had the honour now. I was so delighted when I saw Axel walking in the door to the party. At least he met his friends for one last farewell."

Anthony stayed with my brother John for Mick's party. He lost some of that camaraderie when he became coach. Now he was with his old comrades and loving every minute of it all. Foley was never fitter. "No one could have suspected he had heart trouble," says John.

Above all else, we always felt safe in his company. That man would never do an ugly thing and there was something in his eyes that read you through to the core. He would sense if your form was bad and he would tailor his conversation from ribbing to empathy. The humanity in him would try to lift you.

He was a minder and a safe-keeper of bodies and souls, of traditions and of values. And his family will be safe too. Anthony Foley will never leave Olive and his boys. This powerful, eternal love will last forever. The Holy of Foleys will always look out for his loved ones.

For Anthony Foley never let the side down.

Irish Independent

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