Wednesday 16 October 2019

Foley's deep love for his province shines through in emotional documentary

The late Anthony Foley. Photo: Sportsfile
The late Anthony Foley. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The night before Munster played in their first Heineken Cup final, they had a team meeting that went so deep into the soul it left them emotionally drained for battle the next day. Their opponents, Northampton Saints, arrived to Twickenham held together with band-aids and strapping, such was the physical toll exacted by their run-in to the final. Nevertheless, they had more than their opponents.

It wasn't a mistake Munster made again. You wonder then in the team hotel in Castres last night if they gathered around a screen to watch their preview copy of RTÉ's documentary, Anthony Foley: Munsterman to be screened tomorrow night. Unlikely, we think.

As with anything coming out of the Wildfire Films stable, this is a quality production, beautifully shot and with a rhythm to it that will draw in as many casual viewers as it will rugby fans. Anthony Foley's death, a year ago tomorrow, dominated every news bulletin in every medium from the shock of the event in Paris to his homecoming and burial in Killaloe the following week.

It's a game of two halves: the first tells the story of a young fella who grew up idolising his rugby-playing father whom he then far outstripped to become a legend; the second illustrates how sport, especially its professional ranks, can forget the glory days of the past and focus instead on the barren days of the present.

Conor Murray describes the atmosphere around Munster in 2015 as being "a little bit toxic, maybe". CJ Stander recalled the pain of being in the stand, a few rows in front of Foley's family, as the comments started to rain down from the Brave and the Faithful who had become more Pissed Off and Abusive.

"We were miserable, man," Jerry Flannery says of the struggle endured by a young and inexperienced coaching team led by Foley. "Absolutely miserable. It was torture."

It was inevitable that changes would be made off the field. And when they were, much was made, naturally enough, of Foley's downbeat comment that he hadn't met the new director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus. It didn't bode well.

"I followed the newspaper articles and I saw Axel's comments," Erasmus says. "And I thought: OK, this guy's probably upset. He doesn't know me; I don't know him. We had to decide: listen, you're on probation here, either you're going to go (with) another year or we're cutting you out of the thing. After chatting to the guy for half an hour you could see the guy lived, breathed and ate Munster. He just wants the best for Munster."

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And that was the irony. Foley had a sharp wit set alongside a capacity for Olympic surliness, and we saw a lot more of the latter when he succeeded Rob Penney only to find the job wasn't what it was cracked up to be. Then, when he got moved sideways with the arrival of Erasmus, rather than get the hump, he got a new lease on life. The skill of the South African was in taking away from his predecessor the stuff that used to melt his head - like dealing with the media - and let him do what he did best: coaching. And no sooner was he falling in love again with rugby than his life was cut short.

Retracing all of this evidently was emotional for some of those who took part in the documentary, as it will be for many more who watch it. You wouldn't have needed to be a buddy of Anthony Foley to be moved by the story. In the circumstances then for the players it's probably best viewed after today's game in Stade Pierre Fabre. By which point his presence will have been a driving force.

  • Anthony Foley: Munsterman, Tomorrow, RTÉ1, 9.35pm

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