Anthony Foley wasn’t even a twinkle in his father’s eye when the family name hit the rugby headlines for the first time.
The year was 1968 and St Mary’s were defying all expectation on their way to winning the Munster Junior Cup for the first time.
They had a number of long-established, grizzled individuals in that squad and a young fella called Brendan Foley who still didn’t need to shave more than a couple of times a week. But anybody who knew anything about rugby was fully aware of the man’s potential, most of all those in Shannon who snapped him up and he began a career that was to bring him many honours, including being a past of Munster’s famous 1978 victory over the All Blacks and twice captaining Shannon to Munster Cup glory.
So when young Anthony came along on October 30, 1973, he was immediately earmarked for Shannon RFC duty with every expectation of greatness. This might have appeared over the top but from an early age his father’s shrewd tutorship and advice, combined with his own innate ability meant it would all be realised in the fullness of time.
I had heard about this outstanding prospect from the time Anthony entered his teens but it wasn’t until he graced the St Munchin’s school teams in the late 1980s that I had the first opportunity to watch him in meaningful action. And what an impression he made as captain of the side that stormed to Junior Cup success in 1989. All the time, too, you couldn’t fail to notice the influence of dad both in the dressing room and on the sidelines.
Essentially it has remained much the same to this day.
It would be unfair to Foley’s teammates to suggest this was a one-man team, but it wasn’t far off it. And that was still very much the case when Munchins and PBC met in the 1992 Senior Cup decider. It didn’t quite work out as planned with the Pres coach, Declan Kidney, realising if they could stop Foley they could stop Munchins.
That’s just what happened, causing one of the biggest disappointments of Anthony’s career and leaving Kidney – who was to have such a massive influence over him for years – with serious bragging rights.
However, it was but a blip on Foley’s surge to rugby greatness. He was hardly a day out of Munchins when he was already a regular on the Shannon team that would enjoy enormous success in a hugely-competitive All-Ireland League.
They won every game in 1994/’95 with Foley at number eight in a side masterfully coached by Niall O’Donovan, whom he will now work closely with as Munster manager. And when Shannon completed the four in-a-row, he had played in each of their 48 games.
The professional era was launched in the mid ’90s but the AIL remained an invaluable learning ground and thanks not alone to the efforts of Foley and O’Donovan but other greats like Mick Galwey, Eddie Halvey, Pat Murray, Alan Quinlan, John Hayes and Mick Fitzgibbon, Shannon continued to prosper.
Even when the image of the AIL waned and the Heineken Cup took over, Foley, now widely known as Axel after the character in Beverley Hill Cops, found himself in the right place at the right time and would become integral to the many successes as well as the stinging disappointments of the province from 1995 up to 2008.
He was there for his first provincial cap in the very first European tie against Swansea in 1995, there too when they lost the 2000 final so painfully to Northampton the semi-final, there when they lost to Stade Francais in Lille 12 months later and there again in the 2002 “Hand of Back final” to Leicester. So when he led the side to the never-to-be-forgotten final victory over Biarritz in 2006, justice was seen to be done.
On that day and countless others, you could only stand in awe and wonder at the capacity of the man to lead a great group of men while also getting the ultimate out of himself.
There were so many aspects of Foley’s game that stood out. There was his honesty, commitment, hardness, strength, skill at the back of scrum or line-out, his knack of grabbing try-scoring opportunities like when he bagged a hat-trick against Biarritz in 2001. And, right up there with all of these, his sense of fair play. I can honestly state that I never saw Axel raise a fist or throw a boot. His father Brendan would not have wanted it any other way for they were all characteristics he imbued in his boy from his youngest days.
And if there is one baffling element to his career, it is that he never toured with the Lions ... 62 Irish caps, a series of outstanding performances from the time he made his first appearance against England on 1995 and duly scored the first of his five international tries, 202 games for Munster including two Heineken Cups and 23 tries suggest he should have been a no-brainer to wear another famous red jersey.
Typical of the man though, he kept his counsel just as he did when passed over as head coach for Munster two years ago.
Yesterday, he had his just reward in his appointment to the job he craved and to which he seems admirably suited.
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