With the passing of Anthony Foley things will never be the same again and Irish rugby has been robbed of a massive talent, writes Donal Lenihan.
Nothing prepares you for something like this. From the moment we arrived at the Stade Yves Du Manoir in the Colombes district of Paris, you just knew that something serious was after happening.
It was etched all over the faces of the travelling Irish media.
When I first heard the unconfirmed reports of Anthony Foley’s tragic passing, I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. Rumours often fly around before big games like this but nothing as serious in nature as this one. I had seen Anthony in Cork on Thursday and he looked in great shape.
Within minutes however the horrific news was confirmed in a statement released by the IRFU. A large gathering of Munster supporters were congregating outside the main entrance to the stadium at that stage and one by one they stepped forward, firstly seeking confirmation of Anthony’s passing, followed by stunned silence.
As always with the Munster faithful, they find a way to express their feelings and what followed was absolutely fitting. Slowly they gathered and began to hang their scarfs and flags on the railings at the entrance to the ground. Then, from nowhere, a spontaneous round of applause that lasted for several minutes filled the air.
After that, a respectful rendition of the Fields of Athenry, sung in whispered tones aptly followed by that great Shannon anthem There is an Isle.
I used to hate that song as it normally coincided with a Shannon victory over one of my own clubs, UCC or Cork Constitution.
This time it left me in tears for entirely different reasons. It was incredibly moving.
The Parisians in the crowd stood back respectfully and took it all in. They immediately recognised that one of Munster’s most famous sons was no longer with us. As the Racing 92 followers turned and headed home, their Munster counterparts looked lost.
Nobody knew what to do next.
Anthony Foley has been part and parcel of the Munster movement in Europe right from the outset. From the minute he hung up his boots, it came as no surprise to those that knew him that he pursued a coaching career with his native province and that the vast reserves of knowledge and experience gleaned on the domestic and European stage would be put to best use for the next generation of Munster hopefuls.
The DNA of Munster rugby flows through the blood of Anthony Foley. From the moment he was born, he was destined to follow in the footsteps of his father Brendan and not only emulate his magnificent deeds at provincial and international level, but surpass them.
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.
Wherever his father went, Anthony was always by his side.
He always felt that Munster were at their best when they were bitter and if they were short of a cause entering big games he was never wanting in finding or inventing one. As Munster captain he wasted no time in reminding all those around him that nobody rated them, a task that became more difficult as Munster blazed a trail through successive European campaigns, making it to the knockout stage more often than not.
He was a leader by actions rather than words and his try-scoring deeds - he once scored a hat-trick of tries against Bourgoin in a Heineken Cup match at Thomond Park - saw him top the record books for a forward.
It also ensured that when the best Heineken Cup side of the first 15 years of the tournament was picked, he was an automatic choice.
I sat in that meeting room, selecting that side along with luminaries of the game from around the globe, and Anthony was a unanimous choice.
It was my good fortune to make both my Munster and Ireland debuts partnering his dad Brendan in the second row. I can still see an eight-year-old Anthony Foley sitting in the corner of the Lansdowne Road dressing room normally reserved for front five forwards, waving his home-made Irish tricolour after my first cap against Australia in 1981.
His legs were a few inches short of the ground but he wore this contented smile, comfortable in his surroundings. Anthony would find a slot all of his own in that same dressing room years later as an integral part of many an Irish back row.
It was only right and fitting that when Munster reached their Holy Grail and finally captured the Heineken Cup on that never to be forgotten day in the Millennium Stadium in 2006 that Axel, as was affectionately known by his teammates after the character Axel Foley portrayed by Eddie Murphy in the movies, should be the one to lift the trophy.
People talked of the link that connected the players with the supporters throughout that journey but that connection also extended to Munster’s most famous day to that point given that his father Brendan manned the second row when Munster beat New Zealand 12-0 in Limerick in 1978.
From the outset of that European odyssey against Swansea on a Wednesday afternoon back in 1995 in Thomond Park, Anthony only missed one game on that incredible journey towards lifting the cup 11 years later when he was left out of the side that faced Harlequins at the Stoop in 1997. No surprise that Munster lost 48-40 that day.
I always found him a very straight and honest person. As Ireland manager, I remember him approaching me once when he wasn’t being selected for the national team and demanded to know the reasoning for the decision. I told him every time we had seen him play in the build up he had been limping and didn’t look fully fit. He accepted the explanation and confirmed he had an issue with his ankle but had to keep playing in order not to let Shannon down.
That was Anthony in a nutshell. He gave everything to the cause.
With the arrival of Rassie Erasmus as Director of Rugby, Anthony was able to revert to what he did best, work with the forwards on the training ground without all the distractions that had absorbed so much of his time over the previous two seasons as Munster’s head coach.
You could see he was happy to be back in the thick of the action.
It will take Munster rugby a long time to recover from the horrendous events of yesterday morning here in Paris.
The rugby community from far and wide is united in grief. Things will never be the same again and Irish rugby has been robbed of a massive talent.
My sincere and heartfelt condolence extend to Anthony’ss wife Olive and his two sons Tony and Dan along with his parents Brendan and Sheila and sisters Rosie and Orla. May he rest in peace.
READ MORE: The making of a Munster and Ireland legend
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