Anthony Foley: The archetypal Munster hero

Was there ever a happier rugby day than that afternoon at the Millennium Stadium in May 2006 when Munster finally won the Heineken Cup?

Their exploits over the previous few years had provided a lovable underdog narrative which did wonders for the standing of the tournament in its formative seasons. Year after year they’d make their way to the later stages, find some cruel way of not winning the trophy and yet be back again the following season, their hopes undimmed.

As early as 2002 I heard fans on the bus back to Toulouse from their defeat at Castres speculating that “we’ve had a good run, but that’s probably it”, unable to believe that they would be able to sustain their challenge once Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy had retired.

But back they came every year, and in ever-increasing numbers, red-shirted hordes whose amiability and free spending on their travels made them just about the most welcome invading army in recorded European history. To see Anthony Foley lifting the trophy in Cardiff was, much as Bobby Charlton raising football’s equivalent had been in 1968, to celebrate the completion of a great sporting journey.

They were sustained by forces on show under much less happy circumstances this past weekend. As Tyrone Howe, an eloquently dignified presence on Sky TV put it, “there is no team where the sense of rugby as a family is greater than Munster”.

They were driven on by those fans, and their rapport with players like Anthony Foley, who died shockingly young and suddenly at the age of 42.

Incredibly moved by the tribute paid to Axel in Paris. Testament to all he achieved and how much he meant to fans pic.twitter.com/PaUAUdyYDJ

— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) October 16, 2016

It is a cruel, early end to a remarkable rugby life. You can hardly speak of it as unfulfilled, given how much he had accomplished as a player, but it is impossible to wonder might not still have been to come as a coach.

Might he have led a second coming for Munster, once more (and against still greater odds) fashioning a countervailing force against the greater resources of the French and English clubs? Was he destined to coach Ireland? The IRFU is perhaps the most relaxed of all of the four home unions about overseas appointments, but must surely regard anyone who gets to be head coach of one of the provincial franchises it part-owns as a potential future national coach.

There is a sense of how much he meant — most of all in Munster and in Ireland, but also across the whole European game — in the eloquence of reactions within a few hours of his death being announced.

There were the fans singing Fields of Athenry at the gates of the Stade Yves-du-Manoir. We’ve had Howe and Donal Lenihan on Sky, along with Robert Kitson and Tom English in print. There was Nick Mullins’s typically perceptive reaction that Foley was one of those people that “you felt you knew them even if you didn’t, because they spoke and played with their heart”, along with Munster CEO’s Garrett Fitzgerald’s description of him — and you know something unusual is happening when official statements get eloquent — as “the embodiment of Munster rugby”.

Munster fans paid their tributes to Anthony Foley outside Thomond Park. Niall Carson PA Wire/Press Association Images

You could see that in the way he played. The family was rugby royalty. He was the son of Brendan — one of the Munstermen who beat the All Blacks in 1978. But it was — suitably for a citizen of a Republic — a very democratic form of royalty. Crowds in all sports love most of all the players who feel like projections of themselves, and give the impression that if they were not playing they would be among the masses on the terraces.

Munster’s singular achievement was to put out entire teams who felt like that, but none more so than Foley. But if he was the man on the Thomond Park terraces raised to sporting eminence, he was also a singular and distinctive figure.

It wasn’t just that he was a very fine No.8 forward; he was the smartest player of Keith Wood’s acquaintance, with a gift for identifying space sufficient to impress a top-class wing like Howe. To have played 71 consecutive Heineken Cup ties was a measure of his commitment and durability, while his 23 tries from No.8 could be a long-stay resident of the competition record books.

He was also handled important changes with aplomb in an era full of them. Archetypal local hero he may have been, but he played through an era which saw the provincial representative team his father had played for transformed into a highly competitive professional franchise which recruited prime international talent, yet still retained the local core so vital to the passion which drove both players and supporters.

Anthony Foley charges forward for Ireland against France in 2005. (Photo by liewig christian/Corbis via Getty Images)

He went through the transition from amateurism to professionalism like an Irish version of Jason Leonard, mixing the discipline and competitiveness essential to professional success with a continued enjoyment of the social side of the game. And you don’t have to be that traditional to think that enjoying the odd pint of Guinness may make for more relaxed, better balanced sportsmen than regarding one’s body as a temple.

And his was an era in which Irish rugby players went from being likeable losers to winners — still generally likeable, but first and foremost winners. The teams he played in usually won, starting with the Shannon teams with whom he won five Irish championships, through to Munster’s triumphs in Europe and the transformation of the Irish team once the Five Nations became Six in 2000.

While that change in fortunes is quite rightly linked in most memories to the arrival of players like Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer, it should be noted that it coincided with the recall, after a three year absence, of Foley, who was to play in all but one of Ireland’s Six Nations games to the end of the 2005 championship, winning 21 out of 29 matches across that time.

Cruelly cut short as it was, this was still one hell of a rugby life.

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Anthony Foley: The archetypal Munster hero
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