Friday 19 January 2018

'He could rip you to shreds with a slag - sharp as a tack': Friends of Foley remember the Munster and Ireland legend

From Killaloe, Anthony Foley's rugby education first took him to St Munchin's in Limerick, then to the Irish Schools, Shannon, Munster and Ireland. Brendan Fanning spoke to some of the people who crossed his path on that eventful journey

Paul Burke, former Ireland and Munster outhalf, pays tribute to his former teammate. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Burke, former Ireland and Munster outhalf, pays tribute to his former teammate. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Flan O'Friel (former gamemaster, St Munchin's) - 'When you get about a hundred lads coming in to first year in school you don't get to know them until you put them out on the sportsfield and see what they can do. For the first few weeks it's all about what they can play. My first memory of Anthony was playing GAA - he stood out like a beacon: tall and athletic, a typical number 11.

He struck me as a guy with great talent. It's funny, after he retired I was going back through a booklet I'd kept, for research. And there were two guys with big stars after their names: Anthony and Keith Wood, who was a couple of years ahead of him. Woody was smaller but he was the only other lad who stood out like that from the moment he arrived.

Anthony was very quiet at first. It took a while to get into his shell if I can put it that way, and he was hard to get to know. I suppose the reason I took an interest in him is that I'm a Clare man myself and passionate about hurling which he played all the way up to 18. Nobody could have foreseen back then that he would become a figure on the world stage. These guys not only have talent but you need the work ethic as well, and he had that.

In St Munchin's, the way it worked was that if a lad was good at one sport you passed the information on to the other coaches. So even though there was no underage rugby before school in those days he would always have had a ball in his hands, and he was a star for St Munchin's straight away.'

Warren O'Kelly (Irish Schools 1992)

'The first time I came across Anthony was at a schools trial over in Blackrock College, where they were all held in those days. My dad Vincent knew his father Brendan so I was aware of who he was before I met him. He was the main man in Munster - a typical Munster forward: big ball-carrier with a hard edge to him. The team was dominated by lads from Leinster and Ulster that year so Anthony was in the minority, but he stood out straight away.

The highlight of the season was the tour to New Zealand. He was the linchpin. We played Southland first up and you could see his value there in getting us off on the right foot. If you were going to war then he was the man you wanted with you. Socially he was great crack and we got on straight away. We went on to the Ireland under 21s together and it's hard to believe now but he was capped early by the Ireland seniors - against England in 1995 - and he came back after that to play for the under 21 side. He wasn't any different when he came back - no airs or graces.

We stayed in touch over the years and it was noticeable how he got a bit less outgoing as the pressure came on in his coaching job. You saw more of that gruff demeanour I suppose. I spoke to him a few weeks ago though and he was in great form. I think it was noticeable how much happier he was, that things had settled down with Munster. I remember asking him how he felt about the whole Erasmus thing and he sounded fine with it. 'It is what it is - and if it's what's best for Munster then let's get on with it.' That was typical of him.'

David Quinlan (former Shannon captain)

'I grew up out in Limerick Junction and my oul' lad used to bring me in to watch all the Limerick clubs - but especially Shannon when my cousin Alan got involved. Axel was brilliant. By chance I was up in Lansdowne Road when he made his debut 21 years ago, against England. I didn't know that day I'd be lucky enough to share a pitch with him. I'm grateful that I was.

When I came into the club first I was back-up for Quinlan, Halvey, Foley - and then Colm McMahon was ahead of me there as well. When there was injuries there I'd get a look-in but when they started to pull away with Munster I'd be filling in for Axel in the back-row. And when he was gone I suppose I took his jersey. For me, Foley always coached when he played. He'd be telling you what to do. Any fool could pick up things just watching him. You'd watch him train and play and pick up little things about how to play No 8, because he knew so much.

He was always generous with his time and he'd tell you what he was doing and what you should be looking for. When the separation started between province and club he was an automatic choice for Munster, but when he'd come back to play for the club he was doing it for the club and not himself. I remember him sitting on the bench in club games, and one where he played six and I played eight - it wasn't like he was making a deal of helping us out. He gave it his best, which was typical of him. He was great. One of the good guys.'

Killian Keane (former Munster outhalf)

'Ironically he didn't give me any undue grief because I was from Leinster or from Garryowen, or both - maybe as a northside Dub we're a slightly different breed. In those days I played a lot with him and against him. When I played with him - which by definition was for Munster - I always felt we could win, no matter who we were up against, and almost invariably we did. And when I played against him it was the opposite. And that tended to be right too.

He was very impactful, even though he was young enough then. As a result of that he was one of the first players to be asking: 'Why can't we be beating the Cardiffs and other teams?' Maybe it was because of his family pedigree but he always had high expectations of himself and others. He was a doer. A leader. And even though he was young, you wanted to please him, which typically you'd feel about an older, more experienced player. You wanted to get his seal of approval.

I've read a lot of comments over the last few days about his knack for always being in the right place at the right time. That's true, but what people might not appreciate is that he always did the right thing as well.

Off the field, he was the best of company. For people who didn't know him I'm not sure what impression they had of him, but he was great crack. He could rip you to shreds with a slag when he wanted - sharp as a tack. He enjoyed the camaraderie too, and mostly winning. Especially winning.'

Paul Burke (former Munster and Ireland outhalf)

'It's a funny thing: we won our first senior caps for Ireland together and we discovered in the run-up to that game that we were actually related. My grandfather is from Limerick and he married into the Foley family, making myself and Anthony third cousins. The cartoonist Frank Cogan drew a lovely caricature of the two of us for that game. I always considered that a great memento but obviously it's a bit more than that now.

The first time I came across Anthony was in Thomond Park when I was playing for England Schools. We had some seriously big boys on our side - Tony Diprose, Simon Shaw, Barrie-Jon Mather - but God I remember Anthony that day. Himself and David Corkery got stuck into us. We won 15-0 I think but they were a constant thorn in our side. That was the start of my relationship with him and we played together then for Ireland under 21s when I switched over. Then we were on the Munster side together that won the province's first inter-pro title in years. I remember we played really good rugby in that campaign, and we were together for that first game, against Swansea, when the Heineken Cup started. When you look into the eyes of your team-mates before a big game, Anthony was the type of guy who would instil confidence in you because you knew he wouldn't let you down. He demanded a lot of his team-mates but they would always respond in the appropriate way.

I'm director of rugby now at Epsom College and we had the boys over in Limerick in August. Anthony was so good with his time, and letting the boys in to watch Munster train in UL. Our lads are stunned by what happened. They're saying: 'Sir, we were talking to him only a few months ago.' Everyone is in shock.'

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