Tipp-ed for the top

ONE of the privileges of being in the Munster Academy is the opportunity to train with the senior squad. On Wednesday, for example, Dave Foley got a glimpse of what may lie in store for him should he progress to the professional ranks: an open training session at Thomond Park where kids, grown men and grannies flocked to the cathedral of Munster rugby to watch the slickest machine in European rugby go through their paces. Gods in their own backyard.

In the thick of the action with the likes of Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll was the 20-year-old lock forward, learning and soaking in every detail from three of the best in his position. In the long tradition of great second rows that wore the No 4 and No 5 shirts for Munster, the young Clonmel native aspires to join this pantheon but knows that plenty hard grind lies ahead.

Talking to this young man with big ambition, something O’Connell said recently came to mind. The Munster captain spoke about what he looks for in a young player coming through. “In the end it’s about mental toughness,” he said. That and a good attitude are attributes O’Connell seeks out, and you sense Foley already ticks the boxes.

Though just out of his teens, there is every chance the 6ft 6in second row will be fast-tracked onto a development and then a full-time contract before the end of his Academy apprenticeship, projected to last two more years. He’s making rapid progress, and was involved in all bar one of Munster’s A games this season. On top of that he also played a key role for UL Bohemians this season as the Limerick club secured Top Eight status in the All Ireland League.

A product of Clonmel RFC from where Munster and Ireland Youths (he captained his country) honours followed, Foley’s name was recommended to the Academy by Tom Mulcahy, a well-known coach in provincial circles. Foley’s alma mater is High School in Clonmel, more known for GAA than rugby but he continued to develop his game with his local club, lauding those who helped nurture it from the age of eight.

However, he feels those who came through the schools system were further down the development track than he was as he arrived at the Academy.

“At schools level, they get to practice their skills every day,” says Foley, “and they’re playing a higher level. It took me quite a while to catch up to their skill level for example. For a back, it’s very difficult I would think to make it through the youth system and be recognised; for a big forward, it maybe is just a little easier.

“Still, I’ve always felt I’ve had to work that little bit harder than the person who has come out of school. You can’t just be the same as them — you always have to be better.”

At the Academy they come to understand that patience must become a virtue when striving for that breakthrough moment. “It’s obviously difficult — you want to be in the thick of the action straight away. But you just have to look at Donncha Ryan and how long he had to wait to get into that jersey. It’s frustrating because you see those lads going out on a big match day and you want a piece of that. You want to be there. I think with Tony (McGahan) he’ll give you the chance when you’re ready.”

That he’s offered the opportunity to train regularly with the best has furthered his development, citing a week with the pro-squad in Lanzarote during this year’s Six Nations window as an eye-opener. What stood out for him? Their dedication, desire to be the best and, above all, attitude.

“They’re completely dedicated. With these fellows they’ve a will to win, visible in this team more than any other. Playing for Munster, it’s the nearest you get to playing for your village or town in a GAA sense. Munster is the nearest you’ll get to a parish mentality. There’s a will to win there and a will to do the best for the club.”

On match day at Thomond Park he’s as close to the action as any. For those who didn’t know, Foley has been on, wait for it, ‘streaker duty’ at all Magners League and Heineken Cup games at Thomond Park this season. A peculiar responsibility you might say, but his sideline seat ensures he’s always close to the action.

“The main reason I do it is to see the Munster players up close, how they operate, the movements, the game-plan. It’s another learning process. You’re like a sponge, you’re trying to take in as much as you can.”

Next season a proposed Anglo-Welsh-Irish A league means more game-time for Foley. This season he has already gone toe-to-toe with seasoned pros and those who’ve just broken into senior ranks. “I can only see the A League as bettering the players, especially young players like myself, that’s where you really learn.

“You’re playing against professionals. They’re the ones that teach you. I’ve been lucky enough to come against some great second rows in Irish rugby already — I got to play against Mick O’Driscoll before Munster played the All Blacks; Leinster’s Devon Toner and Trevor Hogan and Ryan Caldwell at Ulster. You can’t ask for much more — they’re top class players in Irish rugby and top class second rows.

“Then I get to train against Paul O’Connell week in, week out. You’re getting huge exposure. It’s brilliant.”

Life couldn’t be better right now for Foley, someone you’re going to hear lot more of in the future.


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