So many of the testimonies and the memories have rightly been dipped in the red of Munster since Anthony Foley’s premature passing but the Killaloe man’s influence was felt all across the four green fields.
A decade spent earning 62 international caps speaks volumes for his worth to the Irish senior team — and some of the images and stories shared from those times this past two days have been a painful joy to behold — but there was more to it than that.
When an eye condition brought Gert Smal’s Six Nations input to a halt back in 2012, it was Foley, at the time an assistant coach at Munster, whom Declan Kidney turned to on speed dial to fill the void.
Fifteen months later and the Shannon clubman was again helping to hold the fort along with Les Kiss and Neil Doak for the summer tour to Canada and the USA during the period after Kidney departed and before Joe Schmidt took control.
He’d already served a stint as forwards coach with the Wolfhounds back in 2010 and in 2014 he was the man in charge when a strong ‘A’ side overcame a younger but exciting Saxons team with six points to spare in Kingsholm.
That’s four years of players from all four of the provinces who have benefited from his knowledge and experience. Among them was a young Robbie Henshaw who, like him, had grown up on the banks of the Shannon.
“It’s a tragic loss for Munster and Irish rugby,” said Henshaw. “Axel was a gentleman. He coached me under the Wolfhounds when we played the Saxons over in Gloucester and he coached me when I got my first cap over in the States.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, it’s just hard to take. I don’t know, I just couldn’t believe when I heard on Sunday. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and with his friends. It’s a tragedy.”
Henshaw’s father Tony was good friends with the Munster legend and the youngster recalled fondly yesterday the crystal clear memories of Foley peeling off the back of a scrum or maul to dot down for his country.
Henshaw’s own potential was obvious to everyone before that debut against the US in Houston three summers ago but he wasn’t the finished product. Foley saw to it that the kid was physically prepared for the beefy North American units.
“He helped me in terms of my tackle technique and getting my body height right and putting a hole in someone as he used to say: putting my shoulder through them. That’s what I remember.” “He was a coach who was straight up,” Henshaw added yesterday at the Aviva Stadium. “He firmly believed that if you did your job... he was a really good forwards coach and really good ruck coach. Defensively, he worked a bit with me on my defence and my first up hits. He was a really good coach and I enjoyed playing under him. He was always calm as well. I only played under him twice but I loved playing under him.”
Schmidt clearly shared those views as Foley’s briefs in Gloucester and in North America would have required the Kiwi’s signature before being signed and sealed and the Ireland coach was another keen to pay tribute yesterday.
“Over the past few seasons I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Axel,” Schmidt said. “His insights on the game and good-natured banter ensured he was always great company.
“He was incredibly supportive of Munster squad members selected for national duty and immensely proud of any Munster man who pulled on the green jersey. He is a huge loss to both Munster and Irish Rugby.”
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