Axel leaves an inspiring legacy of optimism, courage, and hard graft

Anthony Foley’s death raises an eternal Irish question — why are all our heroes sportsmen? Why no politicians?

Tributes paid to the late Munster head coach Anthony Axel Foley in Thomond Park. Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22

There was a week towards the end of May 2006 when, all over Munster, grown men, many used to playing do-or-die hardball in business, many more rounded out by life’s knocks and bruises could hardly finish a sentence without a lump in their throat, without fighting back a tear. 

Embarrassed, they looked away. Some dropped a pen, or made a pretend phonecall hoping no-one would notice how very deeply they had been moved by a silly game.

I know, I was very happy to be one of them — and as I write about Anthony Foley’s tragically premature death, those tears come welling back for far less welcome reasons. 

It’s strange that this should be so. I met Foley just once and then for only a few seconds. I was just another face in an amorphous crowd of intrusive fans.

Anthony Foley with his sister Rosie, who also played for Shannon, Munster, and Ireland.

Nevertheless, I always admired him from afar, even in those great Shannon days when he was learning his craft and revelling in Limerick rugby’s dominance.

Before his Munster playing days ended, that admiration broadened considerably because Foley epitomised the spirit of defiance, ambition, and determination that once made Munster the European team no-one wanted to meet. 

He, and a hardcore of others, was the heartbeat of a preposterously defiant group determined to make talent-rich opponents earn their place in the sun.

That May, Munster, led by Foley, won the European Cup by beating a star-studded — and beautifully tanned — Biarrritz 23-19 in front of 74,534 pilgrims in Cardiff. 

That victory, a culmination of something pretty close to a crusade, released feelings of almost disproportionate joy and pride — but it did more.

It vindicated an idea we had of ourselves, it allowed us believe that ambition is natural and admirable. It pushed back our reticence, it silenced our insecurity, too often sharpened by deference. 

It showed that to the brave and the faithful nothing is impossible. And no-one had more faith than Anthony Foley. 

In later years, as Munster coach, he was to augment that faith with the kind of loyalty few can easily give to a cause that may not have reciprocated so fully, so blindly. 

His death also raises an eternal Irish question — why are all our heroes sportsmen? Why no politicians?

In eulogies such as this, it is standard practice to suggest that honesty and integrity, decency and courage, are values sometimes unappreciated in this age of celebrity but that the subject of the eulogy stood above all of that spin, spin, bling, bling.

Had that cliché not been invented then it would have to be invented now. 

In his cruelly short life, Foley epitomised those timeless, priceless qualities.

By challenging the map laid out for him — and for us — and by utterly redrawing it he has, albeit far too early, left us an inspiring legacy of optimism, courage and most of all, an example of what can be achieved by the oldest of virtues — hard, relentless graft.

And, tragically for the last time, Good man Axel.

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