Thursday 19 September 2019

'I really miss not being able to pick up the phone and call Axel'

Ian Costello in discussion with Anthony Foley during Munster training in 2014 and, far left, on the sideline for Nottingham who play Munster ‘A’ tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Ian Costello in discussion with Anthony Foley during Munster training in 2014 and, far left, on the sideline for Nottingham who play Munster ‘A’ tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Far away from the glamour of the Champions Cup, Ian Costello was preparing his Nottingham side for a British and Irish Cup game when his phone rang.

Had things worked out differently, Costello would have been in Paris with the Munster squad on that fateful day last year when Anthony Foley tragically passed away.

"I found out a couple of minutes before our game, Felix Jones rang me," Costello recalls.

Just a few hours earlier, the same phone had rang, only this time it was Foley who was on the other end.


Since Costello ended his lengthy association with Munster last year, Foley had remained the Kerry native's strongest link to the place he had called home for so long.

Ian Costello head coach of Nottingham Rugby. Photo: Sportsfile
Ian Costello head coach of Nottingham Rugby. Photo: Sportsfile

"I spoke to Axel that night in Paris. I was talking to him on the phone and he was telling me he was at the pub that we were at the night before. I had been home and played golf and football with him.

"I was chatting to him regularly. He was my biggest link with Munster. I find myself this year really missing being able to pick up the phone and ringing Axel to tell him how a game went or how things are going."

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When Foley became Munster's head coach three years ago, one of the first calls he made was to Costello - after all, it was he who gave the former No 8 his first taste of life at the other side of the white lines.

The pair's relationship is one that goes back a long way and not just on the rugby pitch. Costello, a former director of rugby with Bohs, had already decided to go down the coaching route before he approached Foley about the idea of getting involved with him.

Costello's reputation was beginning to blossom and with it opportunities with Munster soon followed.

"Myself and Axel were really good friends," Costello says.

"I coached with him for his whole coaching career. I was coaching the Munster 20s and he was still playing at the time when I approached him.

"Then he coached the Munster 20s with me. Then when I was due to move on, he took over as head coach and he asked me to stay on with him.

"Exactly the same thing happened with the 'A's. He coached the 'A's, I stayed on with the 'A's and obviously it culminated it him offering me a two-year contract as his assistant coach.

"I owe a lot to Axel but it's more than that I suppose. I've coached with him for probably 10 years. I played football with him on a Monday night, played golf with him, drank pints with him, hung out with him before matches."

Foley formed an all-Irish coaching ticket with Costello, Jerry Flannery, Mick O'Driscoll and Brian Walsh all involved but it never quite materialised as they would have hoped.

Amidst the poignancy that the Anthony Foley documentary evoked this week, you couldn't help but notice words like "toxic"," "torture" and "miserable" were used by players and coaches alike to sum up the atmosphere in the province in their final year.

Tensions rose amongst the supporters and the coaching staff were the ones who felt the full brunt of it.

"It got quite tense, things were high-pressured," Costello reflects.

"It was a tough year and we maybe didn't enjoy spending enough time together. That's probably one of my regrets that circumstances changed and everyone was under the pump.

"We all got caught up in our own things in that last year and it was only when I moved away that I started to reconnect again.

"We were under huge stress and the most stress I would feel would be the stress I put myself under. But in Munster, and anywhere in Ireland, there is a lot of external pressure.


"Axel assembled that all-Irish coaching group. The margins in sport are so tight. If we win a PRO12, God knows where it would have kicked on to. He wouldn't have had an ounce of hesitation in putting that coaching group together, he just had complete conviction with it.

"To see the documentary, it was incredible. You'd want a heart of stone not to get emotional watching it.

"What I learned off Axel was just how much love he had and how much conviction he had. He would always see the best in players. He knew how to get the best out of them.

"You talk about regrets in that period, our job was to make Axel successful. I just wanted that group to work.

"I wanted it to work for Axel because of what he was putting in. It's such a pity that it came to this and maybe the only consolation I take is that I knew he was in a very good place. He was the happiest he had been in a long time. He told me he was much happier at work with the way things were working out."

Costello has since moved on and now finds himself in his second year as head coach of Nottingham. While it is a world away from the demands in Munster, the tough times back home have helped mould his outlook nowadays.

"I've worked with one of the biggest clubs in Europe, even in the last year and how difficult it was, I absolutely loved it," he adds. "The last week it's been covered quite frankly with Axel, which is good.

"That's the downside of it (job). There's tons of good sides to working with Munster but I think every experience shapes you. It certainly shaped me living a little bit more in the moment. I walked away and it cemented how much I love coaching.

"That's a very strong statement but despite beating ourselves up week in, week out worrying about getting results... I was looking at the defence and why we were conceding tries, why we weren't performing and every single week, it would torment you. But yet, every time you paused and looked at it, you still enjoyed going to work. You still enjoyed working for Munster."

Some bonds will never be broken.

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