Munster Rugby players and officials returned to Ireland last night in deep shock following the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley. He was 42.
The former back-row forward from Killaloe, Co Clare, was capped 61 times by Ireland, captaining his country three times and leading his native province to the 2006 Heineken Cup final success.
Foley retired as a player in 2008, beginning a coaching career that saw him appointed Munster head coach in 2014.
He passed away yesterday in Munster’s team hotel in Paris, causing the postponement of their Champions Cup pool game with Racing 92 in the French capital.
As the unconfirmed news of Foley’s death reached Munster fans waiting at the Stade Yves Du Manoir for a game that would not take place, there was disbelief among the hundreds of travelling fans until official word came via a statement from Irish rugby’s governing body: “It is with deep regret that the Irish Rugby Football Union and Munster Rugby must advise of the passing overnight of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley, at the team hotel in Paris. Munster Rugby management are liaising directly with Anthony’s family and will provide them with any assistance and support required.
“The IRFU and Munster Rugby pass on our deepest sympathies to all of Anthony’s family and friends and ask for privacy for the family at this sad time.
“As a mark of respect to Anthony and his family and and to support players, management and staff, Munster Rugby have requested that today’s match against Racing 92 be rescheduled.
“Munster Rugby thank Racing 92, EPCR, broadcasters and partners, and the many fans who travelled to Paris for their understanding and support at this time.”
Confirmation sparked emotional scenes at the ground in the north-west Parisian suburb of Colombes, with Munster and Racing supporters holding a long silence before a minute’s applause and moving renditions of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ and ‘The Isle’, the anthem of Foley’s Limerick club Shannon.
Books of condolence organised by the seven local authorities in Munster will open from 12pm today to let all Munster Rugby supporters express their sympathies, while the Irish flag will also be flown at half-mast outside local authority offices.
Tributes were widespread yesterday in recognition of a man described by Munster Rugby CEO Garrett Fitzgerald as “a true rugby great”.
President Michael D Higgins said: “It is with great sadness that I heard of the sudden death of Anthony Foley, the Munster rugby team’s head coach and one of the great figures of Irish sport in the modern era.
“Anthony Foley excelled from a young age and made a huge contribution to the successes of Munster and Ireland, in both his playing and coaching careers.
“While news of his death will be received with shock by all those in the rugby and sports world, it is of course first and foremost a great tragedy for his family and close friends.”
Friend and former Ireland and Munster teammate Ronan O’Gara tweeted last night: “Heartbroken. We have lost an incredible man. Too sad to tweet further. Sleep well Axel. We love you.”
READ MORE: The making of a Munster and Ireland legend
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