Sunday 15 September 2019

'What do you mean Anthony didn't wake up? Anthony is 42'

Anthony Foley with his wife, Olive, on their wedding day
Anthony Foley with his wife, Olive, on their wedding day
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

A glorious dawn run through the streets of Paris to watch the sun rise over the Eiffel Tower marked the start of a day that quickly turned to tragedy for Axel Foley's tight-knit Munster squad.

The sudden death of the rugby coach, aged only 42, is detailed with emotional candour by his colleagues and players in a TV documentary tribute to mark the first anniversary of his passing.

Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, Jerry Flannery, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo join members of Foley's family to share the triumphs and challenges of his career - and to detail the moments after the tragic discovery in the Novotel on October 16, 2016.

The men describe how the day started off routinely, with the players waking and having their breakfast. The Munster coaches went out for a jog, which they would typically do without Foley, who did not like to run.

But by training time, they all began to notice that something was amiss.

Flannery noted Foley's absence during a line-out session, which the manager would normally run, while Rassie Erasmus made a light-hearted remark: "We said, 'Well let's start' and I said to George [Murray, the Munster head of analysis], the words were, 'I hope he's not kidnapped - joking'."

However, a bad vibe began to trickle through the training ground as more questions were asked.

"I asked Jerry Flannery, 'Where is Axel?' and he said, 'We don't know, he's sleeping in'," says CJ Stander. "When he said that I was like, 'Oh OK' and then I thought about it," he recalls, with a confused shake of his head. "We all thought: he doesn't sleep in."

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By the time some of the team went back to the Novotel to investigate, Niall O'Donovan and George Murray were making unsuccessful attempts to call through to Foley's room.

"I rang his mobile, there was no answer from his mobile," says O'Donovan. "So I just said, 'George, you run up and bang the door down, I'll keep ringing.' [But] he wouldn't answer the door so the porter opened the door and George walked in."

The next thing the team recall: "George stepping out of the lift and his face was so white."

Erasmus went out to the pitch and broke the news to other members of the team who had stayed outside. "He was holding a small towel and he had been crying," recalls Conor Murray.

Disbelief ran through the camp. Jerry Flannery explains: "I said, 'What do you mean he's gone?' He said: 'He's gone, he's gone.'

"I just kept thinking this is a mistake, this is a mistake because I was having a laugh with this guy a few hours ago… you're just sitting there thinking, 'Is this f***ing happening, man? Is this really f***ing happening?'"

Adding to the heartbreak, Foley's father, Brendan, had just arrived at the hotel to see his son. O'Donovan says the experience of telling a man his son is dead "is something I never want to do again".

The sudden realisation then hit that Foley's loved ones needed to be notified before news of the tragedy found its way on to social media.

In Killaloe, Co Clare, a call was put in to Foley's family and his sisters were contacted to be made aware of the news in person.

Foley's sister Rosie describes how she was called by her husband Pat and asked "to meet me between the waters or at home".

She recalls: "I said 'Pat, what's wrong'? Because you know by the tone of somebody's voice there's something not right. He pulled in and I could see by his face.

"He said 'Anthony didn't wake up, he just didn't wake up. Your father is after ringing to say he didn't wake up'. And I just couldn't… I mean how do you process that? [I said] what do you mean Anthony didn't wake up? Anthony is 42. What do you mean he didn't wake up?"

Foley's sister Orla recalls, "I went down wailing like a banshee and he had to crumple me in to the front of the car."

She explains later how "having to be up with Olive [Foley's wife] and tell the boys… I'll remember to my dying day. Just pure devastation and loss."

But amid the tragedy, there are lighter moments.

Orla describes how a young Axel mentioned his fondness for his future wife, Olive, so his sisters devised a plan to take her shopping to Cork for the day, while their brother played a rugby game.

"It just so happened that Shannon were playing a game [on that day]," Orla said with a smile. "And it just so happened when the game was over, I told Olive there wasn't room in my car."

Olive was quickly decamped to the [Shannon] team bus for her lift home and, as Orla explains, "by Limerick they were kissing and holding hands".

Anthony Foley: Munsterman airs tomorrow at 9.35pm on RTE One.

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