Very few players embodied all that is admirable about Munster rugby as much as Axel Foley did
By Phil Rice
The tragic loss of one of Munster rugby’s favourite sons is being mourned this week throughout the rugby world. Tributes have poured in from every rugby playing outpost, as rugby supporters everywhere come to terms with the untimely death of Anthony Foley at the early age of 42.
‘Axel,’ as he was affectionately known, had relatively recently retired from playing the game and had always been destined to move into coaching. His transition to coaching coincided with a period when a number of legendary figures of Munster rugby retired. Apart from himself players such as Paul O’- Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Doug Howlett, David Wallace and Dennis Leamy, to name a few all hung up their boots during a five or six year period.
While there is a healthy flow of budding stars coming through the system, it is difficult to replace the exceptional talent that Munster were blessed with during the first decade of this century. Axel never looked for excuses and just put his nose to the grindstone in his efforts to re-establish his beloved province to the forefront of European rugby.
During the past year the powers that be in Munster rugby decided to import a new Head Coach to work alongside Foley. In circumstances such as these many less dedicated men would have ducked out of the situation but he chose to stay and articulated his reasoning.
“There are a lot of emotions that go around when you lose games and you’re passionate about the club and want to win. “You’ve got to decide whether it’s the right or wrong thing to do in terms of, are you being selfish? “Sometimes you can be selfish and walk away and sometimes you can be selfish and stay for the wrong reasons.”
“But once the rationale was right, I love the place. I love working with Munster.
“I want Munster to win every week but it just doesn’t happen.
“That’s the reality but if I felt it was the right thing to do for the club for me not to be involved with Munster, then that would be the decision that you’d make.”
Nobody could ever accuse Axel of being selfish, he was born and bred a Munster rugby man. His father, Brendan, played for Ireland and Munster, his sister Rosie played rugby for Ireland. Anthony grew up within a unique rugby culture that epitomised everything that was good about Munster rugby.
Brendan used to bring him into the Shannon team’s changing room, dressed in the club kit, from the day he was able to walk. That was the Munster way, one big family. Many Munster supporters discovered the tragic news as they made their way to Sunday’s match against Racing in Paris, their stunned expressions reflected the enormity of the situation. As they stood outside the stadium, many in tears, they broke spontaneously into singing ’The fields of Athenry.’
Ironically one of the Racing coaches is Ronan O’Gara, a close friend and team mate for years with Foley. He was too devastated to speak to the media when he heard the news.
His coaching colleague, Laurent Labit, said “This is a terrible shock. Anthony is respected in France for his performances for Munster and Ireland. He is part of the history of Munster. He is Monsieur Munster. It is a tragedy. My thoughts are with Ronan, they have been great friends and colleagues for years. This was the last thing anyone expected coming here to play a match.”
Tributes poured in from outside the rugby world. Irish President, Michael D.Higgins said, “Anthony was one of the great figures of Irish sport in the modern era. He was regarded with great respect and deep affection not just among Munster rugby fans but by all those interested in Irish sport.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, “I am absolutely shocked on hearing of the untimely passing of Anthony Foley. He was a legendary figure of Munster and Irish rugby. It is tragic to lose such a fantastic man at such a young age.”
Former Irish rugby colleague Brian O’Driscoll said, “I can’t quite believe it. So incredibly sad. My thoughts are with Olive, his boys and his extended family.” Former Munster teammate and close friend Frankie Sheehan said,” I’m distraught at the tragic news of Anthony, great friend, teammate and legend. Incomprehensible.”
Former Irish Head Coach Eddie O’Sullivan commented, “Leadership is a special thing. It’s about knowing what to say and the time to say it. Anthony had that.”
Tony Ward ex-Munster and Ireland flyhalf said, “I just can’t take it in because it’s against the natural order of things. “I am just frozen on the spot and I’m stuck for words because it doesn’t make any sense at all.”