A hero, a leader, and a legend - fans' shock at sudden death of 'Axel' Foley
The world of rugby is in mourning today following the sudden death of Munster rugby hero Anthony Foley.
The 42-year-old died in his sleep in Paris, where his Munster team were due to take on French side Racing 92 yesterday.
His tragic death was confirmed by The Irish Rugby Football Union yesterday afternoon and tributes from the world of sport immediately began to pour in for the head coach.
"It is with deep regret that the Irish Rugby Football Union and Munster Rugby must advise of the passing overnight of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley, at the team hotel in Paris," it said.
The rugby legend is survived by his wife Olive and two children Tony (12) and Daniel (8).
The shocking discovery was made after Foley failed to show as the Munster team assembled for their traditional morning lineout practise ahead of the Champions Cup clash against Racing 92, coached by Foley's friend and former team-mate Ronan O'Gara.
His fellow coaches presumed that he had failed to adjust his watch to account for the extra hour, but they also knew that would not be like the professional Foley they knew so well.
His former Munster team-mate and lifelong friend, Jerry Flannery, tried ringing Foley on his mobile but he could not get an answer. He also telephoned the Munster team manager, Niall O'Donovan, but he too could not contact Foley in the team's Novotel base.
The decision was then made to acquire a key-card for his hotel room and the terrible discovery was made.
As a mark of respect, yesterday's game against Racing 92 was called off. The squad were making arrangements to return to Ireland as soon as possible.
As the heart-breaking news filtered through, Munster fans gathered outside the Stade Yves du Manoir to pay tribute to their leader and broke into a poignant rendition of The Fields of Athenry.
A hand-written note left by a devastated fan in Paris spoke volumes. Thanking the tragic rugby legend for all he had done for them, the fan wrote: "Anthony you will always be our hero."
A book of condolences was opened and messages of sympathy poured onto every page from all across Europe.
"An absolute legend. Thank you for the 202 times you stood up and fought for Munster," wrote one fan.
Nicknamed Axel, the no-nonsense back-row made his debut for Munster against Swansea in November 1995, the first time the club played in the then Heineken Cup.
Born in Limerick, but spending most of his life in Clare, Foley was a firm favourite with the fans and a key figure in the Munster side that lifted the cup twice in three years, in 2006 and in 2008.
A record-breaker, he scored 39 tries in the famous red jersey of his province and won 62 caps for Ireland.
His father Brendan was part of the Munster team that famously defeated the All Blacks in 1978, and his sister Rosie was a member of the Ireland women's squad.
Leinster and Ireland rugby hero Brian O'Driscoll was among those from the world of sport to pay tribute to Foley.
"Can't quite believe it. So incredibly sad. My thoughts are with Olive, his boys & and his extended family," O'Driscoll wrote on social media yesterday.
John Horan, father of Marcus, Foley's former Shannon, Munster and Ireland colleague, was among those to pay tribute in Paris.
"I used to laugh. When he got into the car, it used to spill to one side he was so big even then. It's just a shock."
Mary Quinlan, the mother of another of Foley's Shannon, Munster and Ireland teammate Alan Quinlan, said they were "in bits" after learning of the tragic news.
"We were lucky to be in a house down the road. We were together. We've all had our ups and downs, our battles during the years. He'd always say to Alan: 'Be on my left side.' And Alan said: 'Where else did you think I would be?' When he scored a hat-trick, Alan was beside him every step of the way."
She described Foley as "a man of few words".
Close friend Ronan O'Gara said he was "heartbroken".
"Alone on the couch with Jess," he wrote on Twitter.
"Heartbroken. We have lost an incredible man. Too sad to tweet further.. sleep well Axel. We love you..xxx"
Frankie Sheahan, a former Ireland and Munster star, posted a recent photo of Foley and other former Munster players celebrating former Ireland star Mick Galwey's birthday.
"Distraught at the tragic news of Anthony Foley, great friend, teammate and legend. Super form last weekend at Mick Galwey's 50th. Incomprehensible," he said.
Rugby commentator Tom McGurk said: "He was a great leader - he was the heart and soul of that Munster team. It's absolutely shocking."