Anthony Foley: Star player and coach who shone brightly in Munster and Irish rugby

Obituary: ‘In beating Toulouse in Bordeaux [in 2000], we managed to score some of the best tries ever from a Munster perspective’

Anthony Foley: October 30th, 1973-October 16th, 2016. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Anthony Foley: October 30th, 1973-October 16th, 2016. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Anthony Foley, who has died aged 42, will command a prominent place in the pantheon of Munster and Irish rugby, having served his club, Shannon, province and country with distinction, whether as player or coach.

Affectionately known as Axel to the rugby community, it was a nickname inspired by the Eddie Murphy character of the same surname in the Beverly Hills Cop films.

The middle child of three, born to Brendan and Sheila Foley, he lived the first seven years of his life in Murroe, Co Limerick, before the family, which at this point included his sisters Rosie and Orla, moved to the picturesque town of Killaloe in Co Clare.

It was a serendipitous change of address as it introduced Foley to Keith Wood. A lifelong friendship ensued. Wood, a year older, the extrovert, Foley gangly and shy, they whiled away childhood hours trying to outdo one another across a variety of sports, before toiling together in the colours of Munster and Ireland

Foley’s passion for sport was all-consuming and not just for rugby, in which he would forge a professional career.

He played soccer for Star Rovers, ran with St Lua’s athletics club and embraced hurling and football, first with local GAA club, Smith O’Briens, and then with age-grade Clare and East Clare teams. Pitch and putt, tennis and golf would be added to the sporting curriculum vitae.

Stalwart

Rugby, though, was pre-eminent in the Foley household. His father Brendan, a stalwart of Shannonand a member of the Munster team that famously defeated the All Blacks at Thomond Park in 1978 , won 11 caps for Ireland, and his sister Rosie would make 39 appearances for the Ireland women’s rugby team.

Foley was particularly close to his father, who would bring him to Shannon matches.

While Brendan was warming up outside, Anthony, from the time he was five or six years old, would zealously guard his father’s spot in the dressing- room against interlopers.

The two spent hours together at home poring over videos of the great Wales teams of the 1970s, discussing tactics and the finer points of the game.

Foley wasn’t the biggest, the fastest or the most talented player, but he had a wonderful rugby brain that invariably steered the number eight to the epicentre of a game’s key moments.

Sent to board at St Munchin’s College, 13 miles from the family home, Brendan continued his son’s rugby education as the coach, watching him lead the school to a Munster Schools Junior Cup title, and narrowly failing to repeat the feat at senior level, where Munchin’s lost to Presentation Brothers College Cork (PBC).

Coaching PBC that day was Declan Kidney, under whom Foley would play for Ireland Schools and Munster; the two would go on to have that umbilical link as coach and captain.

Foley proudly sported the Shannon colours for 15 seasons, winning five All-Ireland League titles, including a four-in-a-row, during which he played every one of the 48 matches.

He made the first of 202 appearances for Munster against Swansea (1995) in the province’s first ever Heineken Cup fixture and he went on to score 39 tries in a career that spanned 13 seasons. All the while, the backrower was an irresistible force in attack, an immoveable object in defence.

During that time, he captained Munster to their first European Cup in 2006 – they had previously lost two finals – and he was part of the squad that claimed the trophy for a second time in 2008; he played his last match for the province when coming on as a replacement in that season’s quarter-final victory over Gloucester, before retiring at the end of the season.

During a wide-ranging interview for the 2008 Heineken Cup final programme, Foley singled out a couple of personal highlights from his time in a red jersey. “In beating Toulouse in Bordeaux [in 2000], we managed to score some of the best tries ever from a Munster perspective.

Cracking atmosphere

“I’d happily watch any number of re-runs of that day. It was cracking atmosphere on a scorching day in France and few would have given us a chance, but we beat them playing brilliant rugby. We took our chances and it was the manner of victory as much as the actual win itself that provides so much satisfaction.”

He also spoke with satisfaction of the win over Leinster in the semi-final at Lansdowne Road in 2006 and the subsequent victory in the final against Biarritz Olympique.

Foley scored a try on his debut for Ireland against England in 1995 from a quickly taken tap penalty. It embodied his rugby acuity.

He won 62 caps, scored five tries and captained Ireland on three occasions, winning his final cap in a Six Nations game against Wales in 2005.

In 2011, he accepted the role of forwards coach with Munster – he fulfilled the same role for the incapacitated Gert Smal in the Ireland set-up in 2012 – and in 2014 he succeeded Rob Penney as head coach. Away from rugby, he was a devoted family man, to wife, Olive, and sons, Tony and Dan.

Anthony Foley was a man who gave everything, a standard bearer in attitude and example; and a proud custodian of the Munster way. He will continue to cast a long shadow.

He is survived by his wife Olive, children Tony and Daniel, parents Brendan and Sheila, and sisters Rosie and Orla.