The ashen faces outside Stade Yves du Manoir yesterday lunchtime suggested this was no ordinary pre-match atmosphere.
A sunny, warm day in Paris with an eagerly-awaited European clash between Munster and Ronan O’Gara’s Racing 92 in the offing, the scene around the home of the French champions should have been festive.
Instead, the grim, scarcely believable news that Anthony Foley had passed away was filtering through the crowds in the streets outside the stadium. Unconfirmed reports at first, then the unwanted confirmation that Axel, Munster’s head coach, had died overnight at the team hotel. He was only 42.
“It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to our coach, former captain, colleague and friend today, rest in peace Anthony Foley,” read an official Munster Rugby tweet, 140 characters for once plenty.
The shock ran through the hundreds of travelling supporters, many of whom had shared a flight with the team from Cork to Paris 24 hours earlier.
The humour had been great then, last night’s trip back to Dublin would be altogether different in tone.
And it was shared in the Racing camp. Assistant coach Ronan O’Gara had been relishing the afternoon and the chance to pit his wits against his former team-mate and the rest of the Munster coaching staff yet everything had changed so quickly, and permanently, it was difficult to comprehend.
Dressed in his Racing tracksuit O’Gara left the stadium, feeling unable to comment publicly and went to be with his first and foremost rugby family at the Munster team hotel.
Racing’s joint head coach Laurent Labit, said his thoughts were with his assistant.
“They have been great friends and colleagues for years. This was the last thing anyone expected coming here to play a match,” Labit said, before paying a warm tribute to Foley.
“It was not just in Munster and Irish rugby that Anthony Foley is respected. It is a terrible shock.
“He is respected in France for his performances for Munster and Ireland. He is part of the history of Munster, he is Monsieur Munster, the same as Serge Blanco in Biarritz or Philippe Sella in Agen. It is a tragedy.”
Back outside, the Munster supporters began gathering in front of the stadium gates, their numbness developing into a need to pay their respects. Joined by Racing fans there was first a prolonged silence, then a rousing minute’s applause before a lone voice began singing ‘The Fields of Athenry’. It was not a solo for long and after a brief lull, a recognition of Foley’s true rugby roots with a rendition of Shannon RFC anthem ‘The Isle’, a song he would have sung long before The Fields came into vogue at Thomond Park.
The old rickety stadium in the Parisian suburbs had hosted the 1924 Olympics and seen Ireland recognised for the first time as an independent nation at the Games. Now it was turning into a makeshift shrine, as Munster flags were draped across and tied to the stadium fencing. Red jersies sought solace in an embrace and a small delegation of supporters were allowed into the empty, sun-drenched stadium to lay some roses on the centre circle.
A book of condolence was started in a move that will be followed by the opening of several more across the six counties of Munster from noon today.
That will be entirely appropriate for a man who devoted his life to Munster Rugby, even when it came at a cost to his own status within the province. After all the accolades and success with Shannon, Munster, and Ireland, last season would have been the hardest of Foley’s professional life as the fragilities of the squad he inherited on becoming head coach in 2014 were cruelly exposed throughout the European and PRO12 campaigns.
It was also in Paris, last January, that saw Munster and Foley reach their lowest ebb, as an understrength and undermanned Stade Francais ran them ragged to send them crashing out of the Champions Cup with two rounds of pool play still to go. The terrible second-half performance against Stade’s 14 men led Foley to declare he was prepared to walk away from Munster if he felt he could no longer inspire his players to perform. “It’s about results and I’ve said it before and I’m clear on it, if I don’t feel I can get results there’s no point in being here,” an emotional Foley said that night in the French capital.
“I’ve been brought up through here, been here a long time, coming through the schools and everything. It’s about winning, it’s not about people, it’s about getting results. It doesn’t matter. Sport has no memory, no conscience, it doesn’t care. You’ve got to be able to do a job and get results.” Ultimately, the decision was made for him but the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as a director of rugby also brought something of a release for Foley, who had worn his heart on his sleeve for two trying seasons.
Unburdened by the pressures of management, he still carried the title of head coach but focused on breakdown and lineout work and seemed to be enjoying his new purely coaching role.
Erasmus, finding his feet in the northern hemisphere after a switch from his native South Africa, appreciated the depth of knowledge Foley brought to the coaching table in terms of the nuances of PRO12 and European rugby and once the shock has subsided and the mourning completed, the true value of the intellectual property lost in such tragic fashion will be truly felt within Munster.
As chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald said in a moving tribute to his late friend: “Anthony was the embodiment of Munster Rugby and dedicated his life to the game he loved. From St Munchin’s to Shannon, Munster and then Ireland, Anthony was a true rugby great.”
READ MORE: The making of a Munster and Ireland legend
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