Shock, disbelief, numbness… How can it be possible that Anthony Foley will never again be seen out on the pitch, overseeing the warm-up as we congregate on the terrace before our home games? The pitch he loved since his boyhood days watching his father Brendan – himself a rugby legend – play for Shannon, Munster and Ireland.
Those early years hanging around his father’s teams changing rooms imbued him with the Munster values that he brought to his playing and managerial career. His pride in the jersey, his work ethic and ability to read the game helped him maximize his abilities as he racked up an impressive try scoring record (39) and 188 appearances for Munster (188 on munster rugby site so 202 maybe includes friendlies) plus 62 for Ireland and many more for Shannon including all 48 of their infamous 4 in a row league titles. It culminated with the wonderful sight of him raising the European Cup aloft in 2006 as Munster captain. Murray Kinsella analysed his performance in the final and highlighted his “typically robust, selfless, aggressive and gritty performance in the final against Biarritz on that special day at the Millenium Stadium” in this piece in The42.ie
His early steps into management included a secondment to the national team coaching staff with a focus on defence under Declan Kidney.
When he was promoted to head coach of Munster in 2014 they reached the Pro12 final – losing out to Glasgow Warriors – but the team’s failure to get out of the pool stages for that European campaign was a major disappointment, albeit being drawn in a pool with two other semi-finalists from the previous season made it a difficult task.
When the team struggled the following season to qualify for the European Cup you could see the disappointment and strain on his face as he fronted up for the post match interviews. It certainly was not lack of effort or drive for success on his part as he gave everything in him to the club he loved. When Rassie Erasmus was brought in this season as the Director of Rugby it was great to see Anthony with a smile on his face, freed up to spend more time hands-on, working with the players.
Now we take some comfort from the tributes and the sharing of the wonderful memories about a man wonderfully described by the Racing 92 coach Laurent Labit as Monsieur Munster as indeed Anthony Foley and Munster rugby are synonymous: “He is respected in France for his performances for Munster and Ireland. He is part of the history of Munster, he is Monsieur Munster, the same as Serge Blanco in Biarritz or Philippe Sella in Agen. It is a tragedy.”
Reading through all the tributes, we share their sense of disbelief and bewilderment. Munster rugby posted a selection on their website giving an example of the breadth of tributes paid to him from around the world in the close knit rugby family.
The next home game with a minute’s silence and perhaps a rendition of “There is an Isle” in his honour or some other tribute will be our opportunity to show our solidarity and support for his grief-stricken family, friends, teammates, colleagues and the wider Munster community. In particular our hearts go out to his wife Olive, sons Tony and Dan, his parents, sisters, friends and relatives. The team will need our support more than ever as they aim to live up to his legacy.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
Books of condolence are open throughout the province and in London at the Irish Embassy in London (17 Grosvenor Place SW1X 7HR) which will be open all this week, from 9.30am until 4.30pm daily, until Friday.
There is also an online option: https://www.limerick.ie/council/anthony-foley-book-condolence
Billy Keane in the Independent writes a very personal tribute: ” Munster, Shannon and Ireland were his passion but his wife Olive and their two boys were his life.”
Alan Quinlan, his backrow warrior wrote: “To the outside world, Anthony Foley was the ultimate rugby man. But to those who were lucky enough to know him, he was that and so much more. A brilliant dad. A loving husband. The most loyal of friends. The kindest of brothers. A special son.”
Gerry Thornley recalled this quote from last season: “I can’t separate myself from Munster at times because it’s been 21 years nearly now, in and around the squad, since ’94. So it’s a good chunk of my life and I want us to win, and I want us to do well and I want us to be competing at the back end of every competition”
Murray Kinsella in The42.ie wrote: “He combined perfectly the values of the amateur and professional eras, bringing an understanding of the emotive side of rugby, the power of playing for something, for the people who meant most to him, for his friends, and sometimes for the craic”
Donal Lenihan who played with Brendan wrote in the Examiner: “The thing that made Munster great, better than the entire sum of their parts, was that everyone understood where they came from and who they represented. Anthony was central in establishing those ground rules and no doubt that hard edge was nurtured and developed from his earliest days hanging around Shannon and Munster dressing rooms.”
A personal tribute from Gordon D’Arcy in the Irish Times praised him for his ability to be in the right place at the right time and for his contribution to Munster: “Munster won all those tough matches on the road and in Thomond Park because of their unity. They defended and looked after each other completely. That was a time in rugby when a rare team like them could overcome so much just by standing together and fighting as a team.”
Anthony Foley was asked by Alan English how he would like to be remembered:
Thanks Anthony for setting the bar high for those who follow in your footsteps.
Added Dec 22: an interview with Conor Murray about the impact on him 2 months later from the Guardian
Finally this brings a tear to my eye