Retired from professional rugby, Anthony Foley spent a season playing junior B football in Clare

After the roar of the crowd in Thomond Park and Lansdowne Road faded, Anthony Foley’s sporting focus narrowed to the GAA fields of east Clare for a season.

His local club in Killaloe, Smith O’Briens, were playing junior B football in 2010, and then-chairman Naoise Lawlor was looking for a way to revitalise interest in the code... Foley had retired from professional rugby. It was an obvious match.

And a familiar one, says Lawlor, who points out that Brendan Foley, Anthony’s father, had played in goal for Smith O’Briens in his own time.

The connection was there. It just had to be reactivated.

“The Gaelic football had become a social outlet, really, in comparison with the hurling. We wanted lads to come down to the field to keep involved, and when they learned that Foley was coming down, that wasn’t a problem.”

In another context the arrival of a newly-retired professional sportsman might have jarred with Sunday morning footballers. Not here, though.

“His manner, his persona — big and all as he was, he made lads very relaxed,” says Lawlor.

“Nobody felt uncomfortable in his company. Before all the games we played that year, he made everyone feel relaxed and ready to enjoy themselves, which was what the football was all about. He knew all the lads by their first names, after all, and they all knew him.

“Before the county final he said a few words in the dressing room — ‘lads, we’ve an hour to go out and do our best, let’s bring something back to Killaloe’. And that’s what happened. It was a fantastic day.” The rugby star played mostly at full-forward.

As Lawlor says, no-one stars at junior B level, but Foley’s considerable presence made him an asset to the Killaloe club.

“He knew his limitations so we’d start him in at full-forward and then he’d roam around the place, get involved in the play — talking to the lads, encouraging them, winning the ball and laying it off.

“Now he was someone who had to be marked. The opposition would know him, obviously, and he took watching.

“He chipped in with the odd score — and he’d knock some enjoyment out of it when he did!

“He was the same coming in to us as he was going in to Shannon, to Munster, to Ireland.

“His personality never changed a bit. Putting on a jersey and boots, he was going out to do his best. He never demanded anything extra from the lads. Nobody was expecting miracles from him — he was well into his 30s when he fell in with us — but his presence made lads take the football more seriously, which was what we wanted at the time.

“We’d have been seeing 14 or 15 at training, but every lad wanted to train with him, we’d have 24, 25 at each session.

“That was his personality: lads just wanted to be in his company.

“And there was that incentive — fellas were thinking, ‘Foley is here training, I better up my own game’. And winning the championship put the icing on the cake, then. We were so proud of that, and so proud of him.

“Afterwards we had a great night celebrating, we have all the pictures from that evening, all of us together. It won’t be forgotten.”

Lawlor met people on the road in Killaloe yesterday coming back from Paris, and heading on their way to work. All were in a state of shock.

“Everyone is the same. What can you say? What can you do? In this instance there’s nothing or no-one to blame — there wasn’t a car crash or a long illness, for instance. His time was up, but we have no answers. Nowhere to go. It’s very hard.”

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