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Saturday 10 December 2016

Foley death leaves rugby in shock

The ex-captain and coach embodied Munster rugby

Munster head coach Anthony Foley passed away yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster head coach Anthony Foley passed away yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

"He came out of the soil of Munster. It is a terrible sadness that he's going back into that soil too early." - Ex-England out-half Stuart Barnes

Former Ireland captain Donal Lenihan led the heartfelt and resounding song of sympathy for Anthony 'Axel' Foley.

The Cork man was in Paris yesterday when rumours of Foley's tragic demise came to pass.

"I arrived at the stadium just two hours before the game," he said. "The minute we got here you got a sense there was something seriously wrong.

"Unfortunately, the news was confirmed of Anthony's tragic passing."

Men and women wearing red gathered in the sunshine at the gates of Racing 92's Stade Yves du Manoir to share in their grief and disbelief at the passing of a rugby legend and, more importantly, a much-loved family man to his wife Olive and his sons Tony and Dan.

"It's typical of the Munster support, they always tend to hit the right note," said Lenihan.

"They gathering outside the stadium and they started off with 'The Fields of Athenry' which is Munster's adopted song, right throughout their fight for the Heineken Cup from the mid-noughties.

"It was followed even more aptly by 'There is an Isle' which is the famous Shannon anthem, sung after all their successes."

Praises

Lenihan was moved to recall his memories of Foley the boy before singing the praises of the man.

Anthony Foley with his Man of the Match award following the Six Nations victory over Italy in 2004. Photo: PA
Anthony Foley with his Man of the Match award following the Six Nations victory over Italy in 2004. Photo: PA

"I got my first cap for Munster with Brendan, his father. I got my first cap for Ireland with his father," he said.

"I remember Anthony right from those early days as a young fellow running around the dressing-rooms in Thomond Park.

"He was destined to be a rugby player," continued Lenihan.

This was back in the halcyon days of the All-Ireland League, when blood was spilt and bonds forged out of respect for the battle.

"There was a great rivalry between Shannon and Cork Con, my club. You obviously take an interest in somebody when you know them from such a young age.

"I watched him progress through the ranks for Munster, go on to get capped for Ireland."

Brendan Foley's greatest hour in the game came when Munster brought the All Blacks to heel at Thomond Park in 1978.

It left a legacy of legend that added to the mystique of how Munster could dig so deep to defend their soil.

This was the basis for the province's unrivalled reputation as a hell on earth for those who would enter into Thomond Park on European evenings.

Brendan's son followed this by lifting the Heineken Cup in 2006 as their captain in what was the culmination of a dream built on the heartbreak of defeats to Northampton and Leicester Tigers in the 2000 and 2002 finals, respectively.

In fact, Foley still holds the record for the most successive European Cup matches by any player for a single club at 71 between 1997 and 2006.

He was revered as a man of character, steel and intelligence, whose sharp mind made up for what he lacked in speed.

He represented his country for 62 caps between 1995 and 2005, pulled on the Munster jersey 188 times, 58 of those as captain between 1995 and 2008.

It was in his last season as a professional when Paul O'Connell stepped up to grasp Munster's second European Cup.

"Anthony's role was even greater (than O'Connell) in that he played in Munster's very first game in the Heineken Cup against Swansea on a Wednesday afternoon at Thomond Park," noted Lenihan.

"From what I can remember, he was dropped once against Harlequins away at The Stoop in the only game that he missed in the entire campaign from that day in 1995 to when Munster reached The Holy Grail and finally lifted that trophy in 2006."

The romance that evolved between Munster and its one true love was the greatest the competition has ever known.

In 2010, Foley's role was forever etched into it.

"I was part of a group that selected the best fifteen of the first fifteen years of the Heineken Cup," added Lenihan.

"When you consider great players like Lawrence Dallaglio were fighting for that jersey, the fact Anthony was selected unanimously by everyone around the table shows what an integral part he was not only of Munster's journey, but of the Heineken Cup as it was and The Champions Cup as it is now."

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