Anthony Foley: One of the game’s greatest

Anthony Foley’s talent was spotted early on and he went about fulfilling every inch of his potential, writes Charlie Mulqueen.

It was in the mid-eighties when word spread throughout the Limerick rugby world that a very special talent was emerging from St Munchin’s College.

The name on everyone’s lips was that of Anthony Foley, son of the great Brendan of Munster and Ireland fame, and a young man benefiting hugely from the coaching of his dedicated and knowledgeable dad.

Within a short few years, the native of Murroe and resident of Killaloe, was realising his potential and justifying all the praise that had been heaped on him from his earliest days in the colours of St Mary’s, Shannon and St Munchin’s, whom he captained to victory in the Munster Schools Junior Cup in 1989. That was widely held to have been something of a one-man Munchin’s team and those who witnessed Foley’s towering performances at number eight in the semi-final win over CBC at Musgrave Park and Crescent in the Thomond Park final saw no reason to argue.

Years later Anthony would shake his head in frustration when reminded of Munchin’s shock defeat in a senior final in by PBC. He later accepted he attempted to do too much on his own against a team cunningly coached by Declan Kidney, a man for whom he was to develop a massive respect for during the greatest years of his glittering rugby career.

Not that he confined his sporting activities to rugby. Foley senior loved to see his son hurling in the colours of the Smith-O’Brien club and they still talk in Killaloe of the fierce competitive edge to the tennis matches contested between himself and his close friend, Keith Wood.

Their friendship developed and grew over the years, all the more fascinating because both of their fathers had played for Ireland and they themselves would do so on many occasions in the future.

All the time, Foley would revel in the glory days of his beloved Manchester United, even when he was developing a reputation as one of the best number eight forwards in rugby and arguably the greatest of all Heineken European Cup captains.

From St Munchin’s College through Shannon’s astonishing run of success in the All-Ireland League, Anthony Foley was regarded as one of the game’s greatest and yet even more famous events lay in wait as the game entered the professional era.

Typically, he scored a try for Ireland on his international debut against England on January 21st, 1995, and got four more in the course of winning 62 caps over the next ten years.

If anything, though, I believe Axel (so nicknamed after the character in the movie, Beverly Hills Cop) will be best remembered for his contributions to Munster’s remarkable success through the 1990s and the first two decades of the new millennium.

He made the first of his 202 appearances for Munster in their first European Cup match against Swansea on November 1st, 1995, a side that also contained two other legends of the game in Peter Clohessy and his Shannon club mate Mick Galwey. They would enjoy many great days in the red jersey.

Galwey took over the captaincy the following season from another Shannon great, Pat Murray, and it wasn’t until 2004/’05 that Foley assumed the role. By then, he had been party to some of the greatest days and some of the most bitterly disappointing in the history of the province.

His leadership and determination to banish forever the memories of European final defeats in 2000 and 2002 were to play crucial roles as the Heineken Cup was captured in memorable circumstances in Cardiff in 2006.

Those were the days that the many great players, coaches, officials, the Red Army and dare I say it, the media, will forever hold dear. We got to meet and know Foley, Galwey, the Claw, O’Gara, Stringer and O’Connell and they all made us welcome and very proud to be able to call them friends.

How could you not remember the day when Axel landed the most unlikely of prizes – the guarantee of free pizza for life as the first Munsterman to score three tries in a European Cup match. This seemed like too good an offer for a man who had always loved his grub and he duly pulled off a hat-trick against Biarritz on one of those mystical Thomond Park afternoons in January 2001.

On retirement, a man with the rugby acumen and savvy of Anthony Foley was never going to be lost to rugby and inevitably he turned to coaching when his playing days finally came to an end.

The experience of working with men like Kidney and Rob Penney and playing with and against some of the game’s finest stood to him and it came as no surprise when he was appointed head coach of Munster.

Disappointingly, this didn’t work out as well as he would have hoped and it must have come as quite a blow when South African Rassie Erasmus was appointed director of rugby over his head at the start of the current campaign. It was then that in my view and that of many other observers, Foley displayed the strength of character and common sense that had been among his strongest and most admirable attributes throughout his career.

My most recent interview with him took place in the new Munster headquarters at the University of Limerick a fortnight ago. I asked Axel how he was settling to a new role and he answered in typically forthright and honest fashion.

“I’m enjoying it and looking forward to weekends, getting out and seeing the boys play”, he said. “It’s great having other voices around the place. Having different opinions is helping. There is always pressure, different types of pressure. It’s still about winning.

“It was the same last year. Everyone sits around a table and has the same voice. Sometimes you have to go with what you don’t feel is right. That was eight years ago, five years ago, last year, this year. People are employed to give their expert opinion. If you don’t listen to them, why have them there? Sometimes you strongly push some things. Other times you go with what other people strongly believe and that’s why everyone works as a team.”

How tragically sad it is that such a wonderful sportsman will no longer have the opportunity to be a member of that team.

READ MORE: Shock and disbelief as rugby world mourns passing of legend Anthony Foley

READ MORE: Axel leaves an inspiring legacy of optimism, courage, and hard graft

READ MORE: Anthony Foley ‘a gentleman and one of the greats’

READ MORE: DONAL LENIHAN: Anthony Foley, a leader by actions rather than words

READ MORE: Mick Galwey: ‘Anthony Foley was a great friend, a great man and a great family man’

READ MORE: The making of a Munster and Ireland legend

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