Anthony Foley: ‘It’s the humanity of the man, that’s what will remain’

Friends and colleagues clearly felt blessed to have known the Munster rugby great

The late Anthony Foley: “He was big in every way – a big personality, a big sense of humour, generous to a fault.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The late Anthony Foley: “He was big in every way – a big personality, a big sense of humour, generous to a fault.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It was like going to the funeral of someone you’ve never met, maybe a parent of a friend. You listen to the warmest and funniest of tributes and get a sense of how big a gap their loss will leave in the lives of those who loved them. And you wish you had known them.

The common thread in the tributes paid to Anthony Foley on Sky Sports after the news broke of his death was that his friends from the world of rugby truly felt blessed to have known him.

Sky get hammered regularly enough for all sorts, plenty of it justified, but from the moment presenter James Gemmell told viewers that “we must bring you the saddest possible news”, their coverage was perfect, and sensitively done.

Much of that was down to Tyrone Howe, one of Foley’s former room-mates from their Ireland days, who was on duty in the studio with Gemmell for the afternoon’s European Champions Cup games when the news came through. A distraught Alan Quinlan “has left and headed for home”, said Gemmell, and Howe looked like he wanted to do the same.

Finding words

It was unimaginable how difficult it must have been for him, having to handle his own desperate sadness over the shocking loss of his friend, while also having to give the viewers a sense of the kind of man he was. ‘Was.’ Howe struggled with using the past tense. “Axel is . . .”.

“Forgetting rugby, what I remember about Anthony were his twinkling eyes, his smile and his great, great sense of fun. He was a big man, but not the sort of big man who is created in a gym. And he was big in every way – a big personality, a big sense of humour, generous to a fault.

“The four provinces try to beat the living daylights out of each other on the pitch, but it’s a big family. And there is no team where the sense of rugby family is stronger than in Munster: the connection between the players and the fans is so close. They’ve celebrated and suffered together over the years.

“And he was one of the heartbeats of everything that is good about Munster rugby. He stood for great core values and principles which were at the heart of what made Munster rugby great.

“It’s the humanity of the man, that’s what will remain.”

Over in Paris, Stuart Barnes relayed the mood in the stadium, “there’s an aura of real sadness settling over the ground . . . it’s appalling, he’s too soon gone,” he said.

And then Miles Harrison spoke to an emotional Donal Lenihan on the touchline, and he too spoke movingly about his memories of the young Anthony when he played with his father Brendan.

Brendan was a team-mate when Lenihan was first capped by both Munster and Ireland and he recalled “Anthony, right from those early days, running around the dressing room in Thomond Park”.

“He was destined to be a rugby player, and when he first played for Ireland I could still picture this little figure in the corner waving an Irish flag.”

Perfect symmetry

Heineken Cup

Then Paul Wallace was on the phone. He recalled sharing a room with Foley at the 1995 World Cup. And Foley being made to publicly apologise to him by the powers-that-be for returning late to the room after a night out. “And I was only in five minutes before him,” he said. They laughed about it for nigh on two decades.

When his friends and former team-mates gather to bid him farewell, you get the notion it’ll be a celebration of a wonderful life, rather than the mourning of one cut short. They were fortunate to know him.

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