In the past few years Irish international and club rugby has lost some of its greats to injury and retirement, such as Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, but no one thought we would have to say a permanent goodbye to another great, Anthony Foley, so soon.
Foley was found dead in his Paris hotel room on Sunday 16 October, hours before Munster’s scheduled Champions Cup match against Racing 92. He died of a fluid build-up on his lungs brought on by heart disease. The game was postponed but Irish rugby fans were immediately plunged into a period of intense mourning.
The Munster man had an outstanding record. The number eight represented his province 201 times, scoring 195 points along the way, and captained them to two European Cups: one in 2006 and the second in 2008. Foley, also nicknamed ‘Axel’, won 62 caps for Ireland and skippered his country on three occasions. At his club, Foley was only dropped from the squad once in a career that spanned from 1995-2008: a feat few rugby players can claim. It was not only the playing side of the game in which Foley excelled. In March 2011, Foley took over as Munster’s forwards coach. He even held the position of forwards coach for Ireland temporarily. In 2013 he succeeded Rob Penney as Munster’s head coach, signing a two-year contract that began in July 2014.
Current Munster skipper Peter O’Mahoney summed up the talent Irish rugby has lost when he told The Irish Examiner: “That he’s gone is incredible. We’ve lost the rugby brain, the player, the man, the friend, the coach, and a brother.”
The whole of Limerick has been overcome by grief this week: “Whether you’re a truck driver or a barrister, a baker or a candlestick maker, everyone in this city plays the game. Limerick is all about rugby, and rugby is all about Limerick,” said Limerick’s mayor Kieran O’Hanlon talking to BBC Sport’s Tom Fordyce. As Fordyce is right to suggest, Foley’s death has truly shocked the whole of a province that is struggling to come to terms with the loss of one of their own.
Foley’s former team mate Noel Healey (the current president of Foley’s first club Shannon RFC) offered BBC Sport a personal view of Foley and Shannon RFC’s reaction: “I use the word bereft. Anthony was a favourite son of this club. As a child he used to jealously guard his father’s place in the dressing-room. He would go in there early, he would sit where his father used to sit, and he wouldn’t let anyone else sit there until his dad came in. And he would sit in the same position himself in later years as a man, as a player.”
There is one quote by Limerick’s mayor, again speaking to BBC Sport, that truly depicts how much the province of Munster loved and respected Foley: “I remember the day John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and for us in Limerick, we’ll always remember the day and the time that we learned of the tragic loss of our beloved Anthony.”
Since Foley’s death there have been 11 books of condolence signed outside Munster’s home ground. His former school – St Munchin’s – is in disbelief and its gates have been covered in Munster flags and scarves. Not only have Munster lost a beloved son before they should have done, but they have lost a teammate, a coach, a brother in arms, a gentleman and a family man.
The entire province of Munster and all associated with Thomond Park, be it player or fan, now faces a period of grief and turbulence.
However, one thing is certain: the Irish tricolour may fly at half-mast over the government buildings in Limerick but Munster flags were raised even higher at Thomond Park on Saturday, during their emotionally charged 38-17 win over Glasgow Warriors, to honour the Munster legend that was Anthony Foley.
Image courtesy of St Munchin’s College