Tuesday 23 July 2019

Tony Ward: Let there be no doubt about it - this modest man was a legend of both Munster and Irish rugby

Anthony Foley in action for Ireland in 2000. Photo: Matt Browne
Anthony Foley in action for Ireland in 2000. Photo: Matt Browne
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Sometimes words just fail. Yesterday at around 2pm when news came through from Paris of Anthony Foley's tragic passing, I, like I'm sure so many, found myself bereft of logic. I mean what do you say about a recently retired professional sportsman with his full life to live and still only starting out on that exciting journey beyond playing?

In a sporting context, sometimes the term 'legend' can be used very loosely, so let there be no ambiguity here. Anthony Foley was, is and will always be a legend of Munster and Irish rugby, but specifically the former. I first became aware of his prowess on the rugby field in the late eighties and early nineties through his performances for St Munchin's at JCT and almost immediately at SCT level too.

By his fifth year at the Corbally school he was not alone the Munster No 8 but also the lynchpin in the middle of the backrow for the Ireland Schools as well. All in all he played in eight successive schools internationals between 1991 and 1992. The word was out of a superstar in the making.

Naturally, I probed his dad Brendan as to his potential at the time and, with typical Foley modesty, "not bad" was as good as I could get. To put it simply, Anthony - or Axel as he is more popularly known - was cut out of his dad's cloth. Shy by nature, but never suffering fools. If Axel didn't like you, he let you know. I guess I had an advantage in that, because of the age difference, I was, along with footballing heroes Frank Stapleton and Bryan Robson, his sporting hero growing up "closer to home".

That admiration was to be reciprocated over the years as Foley the fledgling superstar fulfilled all that underage potential when making the step up to senior - first with Shannon, subsequently with Munster and ultimately with Ireland. He wasn't a dynamic, ball-carrying No 8 in, say, the Lawrence Dallaglio or Victor Costello mould, but what he lacked in athleticism, and by God he was no slouch, he more than compensated for through pure footballing intellect. Anthony was the thinking man's No 8, with the ball or without. He seldom failed to get across the gain line when in possession and in a defensive capacity his organisation and line of cover was second to none. Both Alan Quinlan and David Wallace will bear testimony to that, Denis Leamy too.

Ultra-competitive on a personal level, he was always the consummate team player with an abiding passion for winning in Munster red.

And while he was undeniably a star in school he was so much more than that when the time came to move up. How often do we see or hear of potentially great players at underage who fail to come remotely close to fulfilling that potential? Well, in a playing context Anthony achieved all of that and so much more. He maximised outstanding potential and that is the greatest compliment. He was tough as nails, yet press me to recall any nasty or devious on-field act and I struggle. He was his father's son in every respect.

From playing in Munster's first ever Heineken Cup match in late 1995 to his final appearance in red some 12 years on, he made over 200 appearances in his beloved red. That included two Heineken Cup final defeats in 2000 and 2002 before leading Munster to the promised land when proudly lifting the Holy Grail at the Millennium Stadium in 2006.

Parallel to that were some 62 appearances at the highest level for Ireland following in the footsteps of dad Brendan and alongside sister Rosie for Ireland Ladies. In the pantheon of forward greats, Foley the younger is up there with the very best. I cannot think of a more complete No 8 to wear red - and there have been some truly great ones over the years.

And if he was dignity personified in his playing days, then so too in retirement where, given that sharp intellect, coaching was the inevitable next step. The transition from pupil to headmaster didn't come easy and Munster struggled in the immediate aftermath of the Rob Penney period.

When the new position of Rugby Director was given to Rassie Erasmus it appeared to be a demotion for the then head coach in all but name. It presented the ideal opportunity for Anthony to step aside if he so wished, but as he had shown over so many years he was made of much tougher stuff than that.

In his own words he explained why he chose to stay at Munster despite the changes to his head coaching role: "There are a lot of emotions that go round when you lose games and you're passionate about the club and you want to win, want to get the best out of a club. You've got to decide whether it's the right or wrong thing to do in terms of 'are you being selfish'… sometimes you can be selfish and walk away and sometimes you can be selfish and stay for the wrong reasons.

"But once the rationale was right, I love the place. I love working with Munster. I want Munster to win every week but it just doesn't happen. That's the reality but if I felt it was the right thing to do for the club for me not to be involved in Munster then that would be the decision that you'd make."

Anthony Foley could be accused of many things but selfish - never. His premature death has left us all grasping at thin air in the frantic search for logic. There is none.

It defies the natural order but nowhere will his tragic loss be felt more than by his wife Olive and their three children, alongside parents Sheila and Brendan as well as sisters Rosie and Orla, plus the extended family. I can't believe I am writing this but Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Irish Independent

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