Sunday 19 January 2020

Captain pays tribute to 'friend and brother'

Munster captain Peter O'Mahony speaking to the media in Limerick yesterday Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster captain Peter O'Mahony speaking to the media in Limerick yesterday Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

On a UL campus teeming with vibrant life as a watery October sun casts a dim warmth, we sit inside a cold, dark room to talk about death - and the desperate business of trying to live through pain and despair.

If this all seems like it is too, too soon, the reaction of Peter O'Mahony - a giant figure of a man, now suddenly creased double as he prepares to open his mouth in public for the first time this week - provides its own grim, silent affirmative.

Nothing in his 27 years as a human being could have possibly prepared him for this moment, as the seemingly insensitive flashbulbs and whirring Dictaphones seek to delve deep into his very soul.

That they find little, if anything at all, is entirely understandable. It is as if we are intruding violently upon grief. At the very least, O'Mahony has found support from his colleagues.

"We've been around each other, which I found has made it easier," he says, after recomposing once the TV cameras have been switched off.

Everything that had before seemed normal and comfortable and ordinary is shattered in pieces all around him.

"Look, at the end of the day it's all pretty trivial. When you're thrown into a scenario like this it puts a lot of things into perspective for everyone," he says.

"Being away from the squad and with the lads around here, that would make it harder. I think the more time we spend together the better.

"We just try and make it as normal as possible - as much as you can. I think the main thing is that we're there for Olive and the kids, and that's been our focus other than being inside the four walls.

"Obviously, that's all we're thinking about outside of maybe the 60 or 70 minutes of training that we did today and yesterday. We've just got to be there for them now. It's not about us. It's not about anything else. It's about minding them now over the next few weeks."

Foley meant everything to him, much more than he can express.

"I can't do him justice here," he said earlier, before bowing to weep, silently. But, remarkably, he does do him justice with consummate strength and bravery.

"I was lucky. I grew up following him around the place, even though he didn't know it - and then to be allowed to come in and rub shoulders with guys like him.


"He had just finished up playing when I came into the academy and into my development contract, but for him to be around and to be allowed to talk to him and be in his presence, it was a dream come true at the time - and it stayed that way up until last weekend.

"My first game that he coached me at Munster was an U-20 game at Thomond Park. We won it 3-0 ironically enough, and that suited Axel as good as if we'd won it by 60 or 70 points.

"He was a man who wanted any Munster jersey to win at any cost. Personally, he meant a huge amount. I haven't played or supported a Munster team that he wasn't involved in. He's been there since the start.

"Every team I've seen or been involved in, he's played or coached. The amount he's given the club, you can't put that into words.

"I was lucky he was in my position as well, the knowledge he could give to me. At times it was frustrating, because he was such a good footballer, he found it hard at times to understand that we couldn't see what he could. That was probably what frustrated him most, he was blessed with such a rugby mind.

"You could never learn... The amount we've lost now that he's gone is incredible - the rugby knowledge, the brain, the man, the coach, the friend, the brother. It's mad."

Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus is now charged with the sensitive role of guiding his squad through this most horrible of circumstances.

"It's something tragic that has happened and everybody has to deal with it differently," he says as the squad inhabit their routine among so much that is shockingly unfamiliar.

"The next two days will obviously be testing. The big thing is to monitor that.

"The support from Munster, from Garret Fitzgerald, the CEO, right down to ground level has been very personal, very professional on an individual basis.

"I think we are doing the best we can with that and, as long as we can keep doing that, I think we will be OK."

They are not OK today, that much is sure. How can they be? At least the opportunity for private grief presents itself - at the removal and funeral.

Then there's the process of public commemoration as Munster try to embrace all the ideals of the rugby man that has left them when they take to the field at lunchtime on Saturday. That's when O'Mahony and his friends will seek succour from the strength that is no more, but still enduring.

"I learned life skills from him, family skills from him. Seeing him bringing Tony and Dan around the dressing room after games. I used to say that I'd love to bring my kids around..."

With that, the tears flow - soon to become a flood as this most traumatic of weeks continues.

Irish Independent

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