When Cusack Park stood for a minute’s silence at the Clare county final last Sunday, a man in front of me didn’t bow his head. Instead he shook it, while scrolling down his phone, scanning tweet after tweet making reference to the passing of one of the county’s finest ever sons.
It was as if no matter how many times he read it was true, he still couldn’t process or believe the news which had broken about an hour earlier. As much as to bow the head like the rest of us might have seemed the more respectful gesture, in a way his was the more appropriate one. To bow the head would be to register, let alone, grieve, Anthony Foley’s passing, but it was too soon for that; by shaking the head the man captured the incredulity of Cusack Park, Clare, Limerick, Munster, Ireland, world rugby.
Not since the passing of Cormac McAnallen has the passing of a sports figure triggered such a sense of mass shock and affection throughout the country. Even though McAnallen was a further 18 years younger than Foley, the sentiment is virtually identical: gone way too soon. Although there is the consolation of knowing, like McAnallen before him, how much he achieved and packed in to such a short, full life, the overwhelming sense is of what he and his family have been deprived of.
The family’s statement yesterday was as eloquent as it was dignified, articulating that his loss can’t be articulated with that harrowing and heartbreaking line that “We have been plunged deep into an incomprehensible darkness and sense of loss that we must work our way through over the coming days, weeks, months, and years.”
It is impossible to write about Foley and not write about his family. Anthony Foley became the rugby player he was because he was his father’s son. And it wasn’t because of genetics. In some of the multiple and well-meaning tributes that have been paid to him, it has been said that his rugby intelligence was innate, something which couldn’t be coached. But that wouldn’t be right, and it certainly wouldn’t be to do right by Brendan Foley.
Anthony Foley would often describe rugby as “basically a street fight with a ball”, largely because his own father was a son of the mean streets of Limerick, but when the family moved to Killaloe, Keith Wood for one will testify that the Foleys viewed the game as much as a game of chess than a street fight. The game was as much about using your brain as much as your brawn; knowing what was the right move to next make.
In the foreword of Foley’s autobiography, Wood recalled calling into the family house “on one of those glamour summer days that only occur in our youth” only to find the curtains closed and father and son glued to the TV set. They watched a lot of videos together, the two Foleys. They loved their westerns: The Magnificent Seven, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and Foley Junior’s personal favourite, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. But for every western that they slipped into that old video cassette player, there were five rugby tapes. The Welsh team of the ‘70s with their mastery of the offload and penetrating runs, the History of Rugby presented by Nigel Starmer-Smith, and a whole litany of Ireland games in the Home Nations.
“With this constant repetition,” wrote Wood, “Anthony began to understand those games and the game intimately.” In his investigation of skill acquisition, the writer Daniel Coyle noted that expert performers in every field are brilliant observers. “I’m not talking about passively watching,” he’d write in The Little Book of Talent. “I’m talking about staring — the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats.” Foley studied and stared at what he wanted to become. As the quote machine that was Yogi Berra used to say, “You can observe a lot just by watching”, and Foley did that and more, in the company of his father in that house in Killaloe.
Five and a half years ago in an interview with me, Foley would elaborate on this theme of how his rugby intelligence, like so much else in the game, was not something innate but developed.
“You just recognise certain trends from the game to the point it’s an instinct to react. You train for it. You see it, you act on it, but you’ve got to have repped it. It’s all about repetition. No matter how talented people might think a player is, when you delve back into what he’s doing, it comes to repeating the skill, repping it, repping it, repping it.”
Even in how he applied and demanded physicality, there was an intelligence to it. Again it was rooted in his father’s outlook. He’d pass on to his son that as important as it was to make the other crowd take the first backward step, don’t punch anyone; you’ll only hurt your team, not your opponent who probably won’t feel it anyway with his adrenaline pumping. “Hit him hard in the tackle, or in the ruck, son. You can do more damage that way — and it’s legal.”
For all the passion and blood and thunder that rugby, Munster rugby, and Foley would be associated with, Foley, to use a term of Mickey Harte’s, was more into offering information rather than noise in the dressing room, that perfect blend of fire and ice. “When Foley or Gaillimh [Mick Galwey] spoke, you were getting solid opinions,” John ‘Bull’ Hayes would observe in his own autobiography. “It wasn’t all just about passion and commitment. They had an awful lot of pure know-how to pass on as well.
“Foley was always thinking; he was great at reading a game on the hoof, reading the opposition, reading the referee as the game was unfolding. And he’d be able to give his analysis in clear language at half-time.”
And yet probably his greatest quality was that as much as he knew about rugby, he knew rugby players even better. He could relate to them, inspire them, probably because he inspired them to fight for a cause greater than them all — Munster, community — which in turn prompted them to fight and play for one another to an unwavering degree. He was so respected because he was so loved. As much as he was known for his blunt and candid manner, there was a soft, understanding side as well.
“We’re looking out for one another here,” he’d say in that interview with me five years ago. “You’re relying on the man beside you for your job, results, so you need to make sure that everyone is okay and feels an important part of the team... You don’t need fellas to be going out to dinner the whole time together but you’d like to be able to think fellas can sit down and talk about each of their families and have that bit of depth about us. That stuff has always been a strength of ours.”
In all he achieved with Munster, it can be forgotten his importance in shaping the Ireland team of this millennium. As brilliant as stellar talents like Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan were, the momentum of 2000 was generated by that of Munster, which in turn was generated by that of Shannon, which in turn was driven by its pack — Clohessy, Galwey, Quinlan, and above all, Foley who was one of several Munster men recalled in that watershed Six Nations campaign of 2000. Ireland would not have been winning triple crowns in the mid-noughties if Munster hadn’t been reaching Heineken Cup finals in the early noughties.
That know-how was something he was passing on to another generation of Munster and Irish player, and to think he can no longer do so in person is still incredible to fathom.
And then that he is no longer there for his children is even harder. Yesterday in these pages Donal Lenihan poignantly recalled how it seemed just like the other day when on his international debut an eight-year-old Anthony Foley sat in the corner of the Lansdowne Road dressing room, his legs short of the ground, swinging, just as he’d protectively mind his father’s spot in the Munster dressing room. Keith Wood has spoken so vividly about those video sessions behind closed curtains in Killaloe, a tradition which Foley was continuing with his own sons. In that interview we did five years ago, Foley spoke about his then six-year-old-son Tony and how he loved watching old Munster games, especially that hit Paul O’Connell made on Chabal against Sale. “He knows old Heineken Cup matches so well, he can predict what’s coming,” Foley smiled.
Now Tony’s father won’t be there for those DVD sitdowns. At least not in person. But he’ll be there alright in spirit, just like he will be with Munster. As long as they wear red, anyone who puts on that jersey, in a way, is a son of Foley’s.
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