Now the former Munster centre is grateful for the opportunity to honour Axel’s memory in Dublin tomorrow night.
Downey, who retired at the top at the age of 35 with Wasps last May, will take part in the annual Legends game between Ireland and England at the RDS (6pm) on St Patrick’s Day, this year’s renewal to be played in memory of Foley, the Munster and Ireland No.8 who was head coach of his beloved province when he died in Paris at the age of 42.
It is the ninth such exhibition game, coming on the eve of the Six Nations showdown between the two countries, and this year’s mission to remember Foley, a former participant in the fixture, has brought a stellar cast to the occasion.
Former Munster team-mates of Foley including Jerry Flannery, Mick Galwey, Marcus Horan, Anthony Horgan, Mick O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Alan Quinlan, and David Wallace will be pulling on their boots once more while the presence of his former fellow internationals including Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Byrne, and Shane Jennings sends the Test cap count into four figures.
The England Legends side will be boasting four World Cup winners — Mike Tindall, Mark Cueto, Ian Balshaw, and Jason Leonard — with Lawrence Dallaglio going head to head with Paul O’Connell as the respective managers.
“Shane Byrne has been organising these games for a while now and when he put it out there that this was Axel, I think everyone jumped at the opportunity to take part,” Downey, 35, told the
“I think a lot of Munster lads have really put their hands up to try and help and get involved in it.
“It’s a great opportunity for some of the Irish greats to get together and remember him.
“It’s a bit of craic, a great way for lads to keep in touch with each other, and throw the ball around for a bit but this year, with what happened to Anthony, it’s a poignant one and I think it should be a good crowd as a result.”
Having first played for Munster in 2006, former Leinster and Connacht centre Downey re-joined the southern province from Northampton Saints in 2012 and stayed for two seasons before moving on to Glasgow and then Wasps.
He was as stunned as anyone last October 16 to hear the tragic news of Foley’s passing from former Munster midfield partner Casey Laulala.
“I heard something about it and I texted Casey straight away. He was due to play against Munster for Racing in Paris and he was completely shellshocked because he had been in the hotel with him the night before. Neither of us could believe it.
“When you see someone that young, who you know, it makes you sit down and think about life and of course his wife, Olive, and the kids. It stops you in your tracks and makes you reflect. But games like this give us all a chance to remember Axel and Friday night will be a celebration, bringing together his team-mates and people who played against him.
“Some of the lads haven’t played for a long, long time but everyone wants to do something for him and show the respect they held Axel in.
“It’s great we have the opportunity to do this and if people can pay their respects by coming along to watch, even better. Tickets are going very well, it’s Ireland and England before the big game the next day and Axel loved those games and it’s going to be a great occasion.”
Downey is enjoying his adjustment to life after a 13-year professional playing career, now working in the financial sector and keeping in touch with the game through media work, with RTÉ, Newstalk and talkSPORT in the UK.
“It’s very different being a spectator. I’m used to it now but the first month or two I didn’t enjoy watching games, it was tough. But I’m really enjoying it now and it’s good to still be involved in the game that gave so much to me. It’s great that Munster have reacted so well to something as terrible as Axel’s death.
“It could have gone either way and the wheels could have come off a little bit but in fairness to them the boys have knuckled down and got on with it. They’ve got the winning habit.”
So too have England of course but Downey is hoping the Ireland Legends can show Joe Schmidt’s team the path to success.
“England certainly know how to win, even when they haven’t been playing well and that’s a dangerous aspect for Ireland. They’re favourites to win and deservedly so but everything’s pointing towards an Irish party on Paddy’s Day and hopefully we can derail the chariot. That would be nice.
“And hopefully we can set the precedent, along with the women and the U20s over in Donnybrook, and get the momentum going for Saturday.”
- Tickets for the Legends game are priced from €10 and are available via Ticketmaster.ie