“My father he gave me the love of it all, when he guided my arms to strike that first ball. A hurley, a football it’s the same thing to me. It’s playing the game that matters, you see”. Those couple of lines are from the GAA incarnation of The Beautiful Game. They surely could be applied to any of us who’ve been imbued with a love of our national games. Obviously, in some cases how that interest manifests itself is different from others. Yet no less fervent in its sincerity.
Even though the above was a passage from a work relating to Gaelic games, it also seems utterly applicable when attempting to summarise the influence of and regard in which Anthony Foley was held. I am in no way qualified to attempt a meaningful synopsis, but, recollection of the many uplifting, enthralling rugby occasions of which ‘Axel’ was at the fulcrum compelled a brief reminiscence.
We shouldn’t compare one tragedy to another. Each is heartbreaking and life changing in their own way. Yet seeing the mournful outpourings of genuine grief and sadness and loss which permeated rugby fields in France and Limerick and anywhere the fifteen-man egg chase prospers recalled the scenes in the aftermath of the calamitous loss of life at Hillsborough stadium a fair few moons ago.
The first line of the above quote is the most resonant. Brendan Foley was part of the Munster team that boldly went where few go and usurped the All Blacks on that historic day in 1978. His offspring – both Anthony and his sister Rosie – spent their careers making history in their own right.
Anthony Foley was the quintessence of the phenomenon Munster became when their waters flowed most fluidly. ‘Tragedy’ is one of those words which tends to be grossly abused. What has befallen the Foley family and all affected by the untimely passing of the 42-year-old is precisely that. Much lighter terms require deployment to articulate the early chapters of what became the Munster rugby story, though they, too, were laden with a version of pungent sadness.
Killaloe’s Foley led the resistance on the dark days – when once only the width of a Twickenham post prevented Ronan O’Gara from essaying the golden fleece of European rugby to the banks of the Shannon – so it was totally fitting that it was the powerhouse forward who eventually attained the prize when the Promised Land opened up.
It could justifiably be pointed out that the particular Munster bunch who eventually attained glorious due reward were well endowed with leaders. Names like Hayes, O’Gara, Stringer , O’Connell and Quinlan could spearhead any class of campaign. Though for a while at least, ‘Axel’ superseded them all.
Thus, while seeing the former fly half divert into coaching – especially with such haste – was a mild surprise, he who made the scrum cap fashionable was forever destined to do so. Leadership was continually interwoven in his rugby life. Remember, Foley was to the forefront of things when the Shannon team he was a lynchpin of gave the All Ireland League its most celebrated period.
Indeed, it was somewhat surprising to see his position in the pecking order of Munster coaching altered by the arrival of Johan Erasmus. Simply as the red army had noticeably been making incremental progress under their local general. Equally as telling, however, was the manner in which Anthony adjusted to the alteration.
Evidently, he was still central to all things Munster. Fate being the cruel mistress she is has ensured that will be eternally so. People often talk in mythical terms about dying with the boots on. This warrior, leader, inspiration and giant of a man, in every sense of that term, went as near as any of us could ever hope to achieving that. Red is the rose in yonder sporting garden above.
It now heightens the sense of privilege that has always been felt whenever a trip to Thomond Park has been possible. In another sporting sphere, fable is afforded to ‘European nights’ at Anfield. A floodlit fixture under the Limerick lights bares close comparison. Perhaps nowhere in sport is there a closer bond between protagonists and patrons.
Now, by the time yours truly graced the great arena, some of those who had began the great red mist such as Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy and Keith Wood and, alas, Foley himself, had exited stage. However, life feels enriched for having seen O’Connell, O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan and so many more do their thing in real time.
Greatest desire currently is to return to that grand, enchanting ground. Realisation dawned in the days following Anthony’s death that a game was never taken in while he was in charge. Doing so sometime in the near future would seem a fitting way in which to pay tribute. Expect those whom he inspired so much and for so long to do likewise on the field.