Wherever you turned in the beautiful village of Killaloe yesterday morning, there was a rugby stalwart, players past and present who had lined out for Munster, Leinster, Ireland, and beyond.
Suitably, given that Anthony Foley’s career bridged the last remnants of the amateur era and into the supreme athleticism of the professional era, those gathered in this corner of Co Clare bridged the decades.
Donal Lenihan, Tony Ward, Paul O’Connell, Rob Henderson, Doug Howlett, Peter Stringer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Ronan O’Gara, Brian O’Driscoll — the list ran on and on like a tricky winger. And amidst all the bear hugs, laughter and tears, none of them really knew what to say.
Two contemporaries of Axel’s, Victor Costello and Reggie Corrigan, had played with and against Foley. Their sense of shock was audible.
Victor recalled how, after his last game with Leinster against Munster, he’d promised to come visit Anthony in Killaloe. He could never have foreseen the circumstances in which he’d finally arrive here on the shores of Lough Derg, all these years later.
“Beautiful part of the world, beautiful man,” he said. “We are all very shook. It’s tough. What a fantastic day yesterday, the people down to the river, everything ran so efficiently, but tough, very tough.
“It’s brought us all together again and what can I say about the man? He was a wholesome guy, a wholesome player. Munster — he was never going to do anything else but play for Munster and coach Munster.
“Axel was a simple man, simple tastes, just born and bred Munster, that’s all he ever wanted to do and that’s why he was so good and that team around him were so good.”
There was a mix of emotions, he said. “Tears, laughing, everything. I think he would have been proud of us in the last 24 hours, we regaled old stories from Leinster team mates and Munster team mates and the respect all round, huge respect, and all focussed on the one man, here today.”
Reggie Corrigan said the massive turnout was simply a mark of the respect everyone had for Axel.
“It’s hard to put into words the way we’re all feeling,” he said. “It’s a bit surreal, to be honest.
“We met up with Woody [Keith Wood] last night and had a good chat with him, he’s been incredibly strong, I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s just a horrible situation.
“I honestly don’t remember a state funeral being as big, genuinely. There just wasn’t a question about everybody being here.
“We’ve come from the hotel this morning and we came down yesterday but this morning, the amount of people who’ve turned up and are just there and nobody knows what to say, or what to do. We were up with the family yesterday and you just don’t know what to say.
“You feel like a bit of a gobshite, to be honest with you, you’re hoping to say the right thing but you know you can’t so, there’s no words to explain what everybody is feeling.
“The most important thing is I hope Olive and the two boys and Brendan and Sheila and Rosie and Orla can get some sort of feeling of how important he was, that’s the thing that you’d hope, that they get some sort of solace from this. I don’t know that they will, but I hope that they do.”
Ireland coaches past and present, Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt, exchanged words and an embrace on the street between Woods coffee shop and the church. The latter recalled how, on more than one occasion, his Leinster team came a cropper against Foley’s Munster.
“He was a pain in the ass,” he joked, with obvious affection. “I got to know him over the last six years and it’s just hard to comprehend.”
For so many, the retirement years must have promised so many opportunities to meet up and recall the old days. No one can have expected that those stories would be retold quite so soon and one key man no longer there to lend his voice or laughter to the throng.