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Remembering Anthony Foley

Anthony Foley

James Harrington pays tribute to the late Munster coach and former Ireland international who died on Sunday.

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The first round of European Champions Cup matches were overshadowed by the sudden and cruelly sad death of Munster’s head coach Anthony Foley.

He was found on Sunday morning in the Paris hotel where the team were staying, hours before the Irish province was due to face Racing 92. He was 42.

The match that afternoon was rightly called off, but still Munster fans gathered outside Racing’s Stade Yves du Manoir and paid tribute to Foley – known affectionately as Axel – in the best way they knew. The only way that was truly fitting.

The Fields of Athenry, the traditional Irish song appropriated by Munster, rang out, not in victory or to spur their heroes on as it had so many times before, but to honour one of the favourite and most devoted sons of Munster and to grieve at his desperately sad passing.

Rugby is a passion in southwest Ireland. Anthony Foley – a decent hurling player who as a boy practised the GAA game in the street alongside Keith Wood, a friend who would also become a Munster and Ireland legend – had rugby in his DNA.

His father, Brendan, won 11 caps for Ireland and was a member of the Munster side that famously beat the All Blacks in 1978. His sister, Rosie, has also donned the green jersey.

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But Foley, a legend in the back row of the Munster scrum when it was a force to be feared, surpassed them. The bare facts are this: he won 62 caps for Ireland in a test career that spanned a decade and started with a try-scoring debut against England in the 1995 Five Nations. He played in the 1995 and 2003 World Cups, and captained his country three times.

Between 2000, when the Six Nations was born, and his retirement in 2005, Foley played in 28 of Ireland’s 29 games in the tournament. They won 21 of those.

Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald described Foley as “the embodiment of Munster rugby.” He won 202 caps for his beloved province between November 1995 and his retirement in 2008, making his debut in the club’s first European fixture against Swansea and playing in 77 of their first 78 European matches.

Foley was more than just a part of the great Munster rugby sides of the first decade of the 21st century. In a team that at one time or another included Mick Galwey, Paul O’Connell, Peter Clohessy, Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara, he was a natural-born leader.

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He was part of the squad that lost in the finals of the 2000 and 2002 competitions, before leading them as captain to their long-awaited Heineken Cup triumph at the Millennium Stadium in 2006. In total, he played in 86 European matches and scored 23 tries.

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There’s no wonder, then, that when pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports marked the 15th anniversary of the Heineken Cup, the long-running predecessor to the current tournament, Foley was named at number eight in the competition’s all-time XV.

He moved into coaching on his retirement and, frankly, there was only one place he would go. He started coaching the forwards before moving through the ranks to become head coach in 2014.

Those are the facts. Impressive though they are, they do not speak of the best of the man, the coach, the player. Broadcaster Nick Mullins described him as “someone you felt you knew them even if you didn’t, because they spoke and played with their heart.”

It was left to fellow former Ireland star Tyrone Howe – who had started the day thinking he would be on rugby punditry duty – to pay tribute to Foley on live TV, having just heard the devastating news. His emotion is palpable.

RIP Anthony Foley.

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