Knowledge, passion and a huge presence
Anthony Foley exhorts the Munster forwards during training. photographs: inpho
Anthony Foley being tackled by Lawrence Dallaglio during the Grand Slam match of 2003. photographs: inpho
INTERVIEW: ANTHONY FOLEYThere have been a few factors in the recent resurgence of the Irish team, and the addition of Anthony Foley to the coaching staff has been one of them. Not alone has it freed up Les Kiss to concentrate on attack, it’s brought Foley’s own presence to the mix. And he has a presence.
He brings knowledge and passion, but he has a presence simply because of his achievements in the Irish professional era; 202 caps for Munster, two Heineken Cups and 62 caps for his country as one of the shrewdest forwards who ever played the game.
“Axel brings a calmness,” says one of the Munster and Irish contingent, “and he’s been there and done it.” Thus, while he may not be the loudest or even the most frequent voice in the mix, when he speaks, players listen.
Steeped in the game, not only does he have the Foley bloodline through his father Brendan, but he is a continuation of that winning Shannon/Munster mentality which was the heartbeat of the rejuvenation in Irish rugby. He’s always talked sense and so, somehow, it was always destined that he would go into coaching.
He first caught the coaching bug while still playing when asked to help Ian Sherwin at Shannon in 2007 and enjoyed it immensely. Coaching gives him the same buzz; keeps him immersed in the game and in long-time friendships, even if the long hours, tough decisions and arguments ensure it hasn’t always been rosy.
It’s hard to switch off. “You can bring your work home. People say you shouldn’t, but you do. It can eat you up.” It’s important to have hobbies, such as playing golf, his silly Manchester United obsession and hoping Alex Ferguson signs Gareth Bale, spending time with Olive and playing with their sons Tony (seven) and Dan (four), whether it be impromptu indoor football in the sitting room or taking them to rugby, swimming or hurling.
“They play anything. That’s the way I was brought up. Play with your parish and your friends.”
He might review games up to 10 times now, and the wins and defeats linger longer, but the bottom line remains the same. “Everybody is reliant on the results. When you put a gun to a coach’s head, it’s all about winning and losing,” he says .
Now in his fifth season of a decidedly varied coaching career, one of the losses that hurt the most, surprisingly, was a British Irish Cup final defeat away to Cornish Pirates in his second campaign, and first as head coach, with the Munster As in 2010 after previously winning 11 from 11 that season.
“It was the depths of low,” he recalls in a quiet lobby of Carton House on Thursday evening, after he had driven up from Killaloe after the squad’s down day. “It was hard in the changing room after the game because they’d given so much and gone to hard places and won games.”
The flip side is that “a lot of guys grew and four of that team were playing for Ireland in November”, namely Conor Murray, David Kilcoyne, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo.
There have been highs too, such as Munster’s 51-36 win away to Northampton in round six last season. “You look back on that tape and think that’s as good a game as a coach you’ve been involved in.” But the higher up the food chain, the more it’s a results-driven game. Hence, up there too would be the 46-24 win over Argentina last November.
“A pure pressure cooker situation,” he describes it, “where people are calling for the head coach’s head. We had a lot of drop-outs, a lot of young players being brought in, a lot of inexperience and to see them go out and play the way they played; you just sit back and enjoy it.”
At Munster, Foley worked with Tony McGahan (who first brought him onto the Munster ticket full-time as defence coach), Jason Holland, Ian Costello, Paul McCarthy and Lawrie Fisher. “Lawrie is an unbelievably good technical coach. He knows his shit about every technique. If you wanted him to explain it to you, he could explain it four or five different ways. I think he left an unbelievable impression on a lot of the younger players coming through.”
“Dumper (Tony McGahan) was incredible. He was a workaholic. Tony was a very young coach with Munster and he wanted to make his mark. That’s the disappointing thing, that he never got that European Cup that his work ethic and desire would have warranted, but you don’t always get what you deserve.”
Effectively starting off with Munster as a defence coach was not how Foley had planned things, and he knew he couldn’t just copy and paste McGahan’s own work, that he had to put his own stamp on the role without upsetting the foundations.
Aside from assiduous research, he went to Australia for nine days to spend time with the Warathas, the Brumbies and the Western Force, talking to coaches such as Scott Wisemantel, Owen Finegan and John Mitchell.
Along with stints as assistant and head coach with the Munster under-20s and As, and full-time jobs as defence and forwards coach with Munster, he’s had two campaigns working with Eric Elwood and the Wolfhounds, and was Irish forwards coach in last season’s Six Nations when Gert Smal was ill and now defence coach with Ireland in the autumn.
He’s probably had less time off than any Irish coach in recent years. “Not all of them have the same calls. It can wreck your head,” he says with a laugh. He could do with a decent holiday this summer, but the variety of his formative coaching career has been helpful.
Moving in with Ireland, Foley has blown away by the attention to detail and the quality of the coaching. “Les [Kiss] is phenomenal. Just the way he thinks about the game. I heard before that every defensive coach thinks he’s a good attack coach, but the way he get his message and point across is excellent. In Gert and Greg [Feek] I think you’ve got the best in the world in their field, and that puts a lot of pressure on me, when you have this quality around. You’d like to think we can get something out of this campaign but, again, it’s all about the result on Sunday.”
Kidney has probably been Foley’s most profound influence. “He’s worked all the way through the grades, he’s worked hard on his trade, he’s his own man, he’s had his own experiences, and I’d say he eats, sleeps, breathes rugby, and it’s good, particularly for young Irish coaches, that he has time for them and makes them welcome if they want to come here.”
No less than the Irish coaches, Foley is out of contract with Munster at the end of the season and no dialogue has begun regarding his own future with Munster, Ireland or both. Such is the life, and he wouldn’t be averse some day to uprooting and coaching abroad, though even if he was working in the family business, Foley’s Mini Busses, he’d be coaching somewhere, be it Shannon and/or Ballina/Killaloe under-age sides.
England at the Aviva in the Six Nations is more pressurised air, and tomorrow’s game will help to define the immediate futures of coaches or would-be Lions players. But Thursday evening, most of the coaches’ work had been done. “It’s all about execution now, and being clinical and accurate.”
Ireland are buoyed by an impressive win away to the grand Slam champions, but Foley thought England impressive in beating New Zealand and in beating Scotland. “They’ve a lot of very good young players like [Tom] Youngs and [Joe] Launchbury. They’ve a very big back row; back to the good old traditional type of English team I would have won my first cap against, Ben Clarke, Tim Rodber and Dean Richards. Big, big men. And why not go back to your strengths?”
“We’ve a fair idea what’s going to happen. Can’t predict anything, but it’s going to be one hell of a battle. It’ll be a good game to watch, a good game to be at.”
And then he laughs, slightly wistfully. “It would be nice to be sitting in Molly’s [in Killaloe] watching it.”