As smash hit double acts go, European professional club rugby never saw anything quite like Anthony Foley and Munster.
That there was nobody to touch them as an enduring partnership really is saying something considering the magnitude of the competition — Martin Johnson and Leicester, Fabien Pelous and Toulouse, Brian O’Driscoll and Leinster, Jonny Wilkinson and Toulon.
Each and every one would have given ‘Axel’ a run for his money. For sure, they won more European titles but there was more to it than that, far more and on that score all four would give a deferential nod of collective acknowledgement.
When it came to putting body and soul into their team, nobody could hold a candle to Foley. Playing for your local club and province is one thing. Building it from the ground floor up into a monumental force something else entirely.
In that sense, Foley the back row forward doubled up as an architect of something unique. Ever since he could remember, he had been acutely aware of Munster’s potential for the grand design, never suspecting that they would soon unleash the largest Red Army on Europe since Stalingrad.
That creation of a new force made all the more formidable by their reinvention of the Pied Piper effect made Foley different from his peers elsewhere.
He, alone of the pack that would conquer Europe, was there when Munster played their first match in Europe, against Swansea on Wednesday afternoon November 1, 1995 at Thomond Park.
Foley knew the old place as if he had lived there all his life which, to some extent, he had. To say he had been steeped in the Munster way of life and its cultural mystique, more than any of the greats who would join him, states the obvious.
Brendan Foley’s boy was initiated into the old wooden Thomond dressing room almost as soon as he could walk. It gave him a rare insight into his father’s status as an international second row forward and, more significantly, an innate understanding of what it meant to play for Munster.
If anyone back then got the mistaken impression that the kid owned the place, then it would be but a matter of time before he did, not that the thought would ever have entered his head.
Judging by the attendance for that pioneering game against Swansea, barely 6,000, the Pied Piper had been otherwise engaged. In next to no time under Foley, they were taking 20,000 to Bordeaux for their first semi-final in May 2000 and twice as many to Twickenham for their first final against Northampton three weeks later.
Along the way they generated an intensity on and off the field which rarely failed to bewilder the supposedly hardest of English clubs, hence the Miracle Match against Gloucester in 2002 and many more of a marginally less miraculous dimension.
By the time they finally painted the rugby map of Europe red 10 years ago, overwhelming Biarritz in Cardiff by sheer willpower after another heartbreaking near miss against Leicester in 2002, Foley ran the show, the Field Marshal in command of a fearsome pack. As a unit — Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy, David Wallace, and Foley — were good enough to stand comparison with the terrifying French eight of the mid-70s — Cholley, Paco, Paparemborde, Palmie, Imbernon, Rives, Skrela, Bastiat.
“To think where we were and where we are now is something we never dreamt of,” Foley said on that historic occasion when they turned Cardiff’s rugby shrine into a triple-tiered sea of red. “The support we get is out of this world.”
Munster made Foley and he helped make them.
Inevitably, on this saddest of weekends, there will be those who will think about the stress of bearing ultimate responsibility for Munster’s results as Foley the head coach did last season. Success brought its own penalties.
An unprecedented double defeat by Leicester before Christmas last season left Munster, the perennial last eight qualifiers, with nowhere to go but out.
In his obligatory post-match interview, Foley wore the haunted look of a man burdened by a fading team’s inability to match public expectation.
“It’s not good enough,’’ he said of that second defeat in the English midlands. “Over the last week it’s not been good enough.’’
How much pain that caused him could be gauged from the hurt on his face. He called one decision an “absolute disgrace” and repeated the words. Ronan O’Gara saw Foley’s interview and his heart bled for him.
It reminded him of a Premier League football manager under fire. “It was horrible and you could see Axel was in a horrible place emotionally,” O’Gara told this newspaper. “He’s a Munster man coaching Munster. It’s all he cares about. His body language betrayed the torture he felt in defeat. It was staggering to see how upset he was. The level of hurt and pain, the sense of pressure, was something I would normally associate with Mourinho or van Gaal.”
Foley always knew the score, always aware of how deep fans had put their hands in their pockets and that the only way to “repay them is by making sure you give everything you can on the day”.
In lighter moments last season after his team had lost five in a row, Foley spoke of the “masochistic” nature of the job. He never lost his self-deprecating sense of humour as reflected in what he told one newspaper: “Jesus, I’d hate to be yer man Anthony Foley with the amount of abuse he’s taking…”
Instead of watching his team start another campaign beneath the bluest of Parisian skies yesterday, a battalion of the Red Army gathered outside the old Stade Colombes and sang in tearful tribute to the man who spent his life giving them a margic carpet ride all over Europe. Never can the old battle hymn have been drowned in such sorrow. Never can the loneliness around the fields of Athenry sounded more poignant.
Anthony Gerard ‘Axel’ Foley would have been 43 on Sunday week (Oct 30), the eve of the day Munster ambushed the All Blacks 38 years ago when his father locked the scrum with Moss Keane.
READ MORE: The making of a Munster and Ireland legend
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