Anthony Foley: A leader forged in St Munchin’s who blossomed at Shannon

Teachers and old team-mates recall an inspirational player who never forgot his roots

Irish Times rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley speaks about former Munster and Ireland back row Anthony Foley, who passed away suddenly aged 42. Video: Second Captains/Inpho

 

Anthony Foley was a family man, a husband, father, son and brother to those remarkably warm and embracing Foleys. He was also a man of his parish and town, Killaloe; of his school, St Munchin’s College across the Clare-Limerick border; of his club Shannon; of his province Munster; and his country Ireland. That was the tree of his rugby life and he never wavered in his loyalty to them all, and he remained rooted in his school and his club.

St Munchin’s College, Limerick

Situated 13 miles from Killaloe, the school gate, like so much else in Limerick and on the road to Killaloe, is bedecked in red jerseys and flags. At about 8am last Monday morning in the dining room, there was a hushed silence amongst the 200 pupils in this all-boys Diocesan school. At 9am, in the assembly hall, principal David Quilter made an announcement to the 600 pupils.

“Then on Tuesday we thanked the boys who had been on TV and radio the previous day,” says Quilter. “On Wednesday we read out a message from the Foley family thanking the school.”

Head gamesmaster Eric Nelligan recalled the minute’s silence on Wednesday afternoon on the main pitch. St Munchin’s were hosting five fixtures, three against PBC Cork, all under-13s, and two more with Glenstal. All the players from all five teams, and those who were also training – about 250 boys – stood in a line the length of the main pitch for a minute’s silence.

“I’ve been getting messages from all the schools,” says Nelligan. “Every gamesmaster has been sending me either messages, emails and mass cards. I received a letter from the Pres team of 1991 that played against Anthony in the Senior Cup. They’ve all rallied and offered their support and condolences. He meant a lot to everybody. He was a figurehead for Munster rugby for so long.”

At Foley’s funeral yesterday, akin to a State funeral in the scale of its tribute, the transition-year students provided a guard of honour and today, in tandem with Shannon, their first-year students will do the same at Thomond Park.

“There’s been a terrible sadness since Monday, but it’s brought the school together,” said Quilter.

“Because what it meant to him, it means to all of us,” agreed Pat Cross, Foley’s coach on the St Munchin’s teams. “It’s kind of rejuvenated our belief that what we’re doing is good.”

St Munchin’s is 220 years old. Originally in Henry Street, where the garda station is now based, the school was moved to its current location in Corbally, the Bishop of Limerick’s former residence, in 1964. In 2011, St Munchin’s completed an €8 million redevelopment. This included 36 new classrooms, science labs, computer rooms and a new sports hall, over four floors. The old façade was maintained.

Hurling was the primary sport for many years. St Munchin’s were the first Limerick school to win a Harty Cup, and did so before they won their first of five Munster Schools Senior Cups in 1968 (to be followed by wins in 1982, 2002, ’04 and ’06. Rugby became the main sport from the 1960s, and their first of five Junior Cups followed in 1971 (the others came in 1987, ’89, ’92 and ’98).

Eight teams

They field eight teams each year, as well as Gaelic and basketball teams, and 25 teachers chip in with the coaching. The vast majority of pupils initially were boarders, as well as being a very even mix of students from the city and the country.

When Foley first attended at 13, he was a day-border. “This meant he came in at eight and would have stayed until after tea, maybe seven o’clock. Then for his last two years he became a full-boarder,” recalls Quilter.

“He gave a full chapter in his book to St Munchin’s,” says Quilter, “and how petrified he was walking down the tree-lined avenue to the school. There’s a great story about him when he was day-boarding. He had an escape route which was very famous. One night, though, some of his mates locked the escape route, so he ended up going into one of the garages until the following morning, and was frozen. That was his story. But he was a rogue, an absolute rogue, and wasn’t very academic.”

According to Cross, who coached him and taught him science (“I tried to teach him science,” he says, correcting himself): “The great thing about him was that he was very respectful. He’d mess and enjoy himself, but would never disrupt a class.”

Cross played for Young Munster and with Foley long since rooted in Shannon from going to games since he was knee high to a grasshopper and then playing for Shannon under-10s up, they were both part of an iternecine Limerick rivalry.

One weekend in the 1987-88 season, Young Munster came across the river to Thomond Park as hot favourites in a Munster Senior Cup semi-final, having beaten Cork Con in the quarter-finals. But Shannon won.

The following Monday morning, Foley – then 14 and in second year – leaned back in his chair near the back of the classroom and, trying to get away from science again, asked Cross how Young Munster had done at the weekend.

“Sir, did you hear the news about the new bridge?”

Thinking that Foley was taking an interest in architecture, Cross said: “No, Anthony, what is it?”

“They’ve decided to stop building the new bridge.”

“Really Anthony.”

“Yeah, they’re changing it to a tunnel so the Young Munster crowd can get back across the Shannon without being seen.”

Second Captains

No less than in the wickedly unforgiving Shannon and Munster dressing-rooms, the slagging was just as fierce in St Munchin’s. “You’d need a thick skin to survive there and it was the same here,” says Quilter. “If you’ve any ego here, it’s knocked out of you very quickly. But he was a leader.”

Indeed, mirroring the history of the school, in his first year at St Munchin’s, Foley actually played for and captained the hurling team, before then captaining the Junior Cup team and the Senior Cup team in the second and third of his campaigns with the older boys.

Foley’s first coach at the school was his father Brendan. Sisters Orla and Rosie were usually to be seen kicking a ball around as their brother’s team trained or played, and mum Sheila was at virtually every game as well.

Drove the bus

As part of his job, Brendan’s bus company also had a contract with the school, so he drove the bus to matches as well, which continued for many years even after his son graduated from school.

In 1989 Foley captained St Munchin’s to the Munster Schools Junior Cup. “He took the penalties, he took the kicks to touch. He was first in everything,” recalls Cross.

Alas, he and Munchin’s lost successive Schools Senior Cups in 1991 and ’92.

Cross has coached at the school for 36 years, and says: “In my time coaching schools rugby, he gave the best performance by a schools player that I ever saw against CBC in the semi-final of 1992. He just carried us that day into the final, and CBC were hot favourites to win it. We were actually shocked we won it. I don’t know how he did it. Any 50-50 ball he won. He carried ball. He defended.”

And Cross has seen some good ones come through St Munchin’s: Billy Mulcahy, Bill Mulcahy, Larry Molony, Colm Tucker, John Packo Fitzgerald, Philip Danaher, Pat Murray, Keith Wood, Jeremy Staunton, Jerry Flannery, Marcus Horan, Barry Murphy, Donnacha Ryan, Denis Hurley, Damien Varley, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and many more.

Watching that semi-final on the sidelines was Declan Kidney, then coaching PBC, whom St Munchin’s would beat in the final at Thomond Park. “Pres had a stronger scrum than us and they knew Foley was the main man, and they double-marked him and chopped him.”

Since he left St Munchin’s, Foley returned several times every year. Sometimes he would just come to matches and stand on his own behind one set of goalposts.

“He’d been leaning with his back against the wall out in Clanwilliam, or somewhere like that, talking to no one and just standing there watching a game,” recalls Nelligan. “No one asked him to come or do a speech before the game. He was just there.”

Other times, they’d ask Foley back to give a team talk before a particularly big game. He was always the pupils’ first choice. “He didn’t say a whole lot,” says Quilter, “but when he did say something, it was short, bullet points. ‘Look at the crest. Look at your team-mates. Your team is like a family. Don’t let them down. Don’t criticise them. If you have a row, get over it and next day get back up again. Support them in the bad times if something goes wrong, and celebrate when something goes right.’”

Foley would walk the corridors, call into the dressing-room, but never would come up to the staff room and sit with the teachers. Too shy. Not his place.

On the Wednesday after Foley captained Munster to the Heineken Cup triumph in Cardiff against Biarritz in 2006, he and his fellow former St Munchin’s pupils in the squad visited the school (who had won the Munster Schools Senior Cup) with the trophy.

The turn-out from pupils, teachers, parents et al numbered around 600 people, so much so that they had to move Foley and co to a balcony overlooking the school yard and the assembled crowd.

According to Quilter: “Our senior squad were there and he added, ‘I know you’ve won a cup this year, but don’t get big-headed about it. Work hard, and you’ll make it.’ Conor Murray and Keith Earls were in that audience, looking up at him and listening to his every word.”

Inspirational then, and now, for sure, beyond.

Shannon RFC

Back in the late 1970s, Anthony Foley was five or six years old when he was brought to a game in Dublin against Old Wesley, who were hosting the Shannon side which featured his father Brendan. The snowbound Donnybrook pitch was unplayable, so the game was moved up to Kilgobbin.

Like Shannon’s Colm Tucker, Old Wesley man Bobby Barron was a Saab dealer, and so was driving one of their showhouse cars. He gave young Foley a lift to the new venue and told him he could sit in the back seat, as it was so cold on the sidelines.

When the game was over and Barron returned to his car, the young Foley had the back door open. Inside was the snowman he built while the match had been taking place.

“That’s absolutely gospel,” recalls Shannon stalwart Bob McConker, a former player turned forwards coach and club secretary.

“Oh, the snow story? One of the better ones,” says Thady Coughlan, whose father Seánie, a one-time Labour TD and Mayor of Limerick, verifies the story. He was meant to be retired by then and was the club secretary, but due to the weather the he was obliged to play that game on the wing.

Trawling around the country on Saturdays, playing with other kids into darkness outside, if and when they came inside they were given a packet of Tayto and a coke for their troubles – that was the norm for the young Foley, Thady Coughlan junior and Barry McConker, now the club secretary.

It was another former St Munchin’s, Shannon and Munster player, Jerry Flannery, who rang the club chairman John Leahy with the terrible news last Sunday. That evening former and current players began gathering in the clubhouse, and it’s been open pretty much all week long.

Amongst the small forest of red flags and jerseys on the main gates to Thomond Park is a Shannon number eight jersey. They are all draped underneath a sign which reads: “The King of our Isle. May you rest in peace. Shannon RFC. ”

At the main door into the Shannon clubhouse sits a book of condolences, underneath a picture of Foley in that familiar head-down, leg-pumping running action of his.

Inside, a family have come down from Belfast Harlequins to be amongst the different generations of former Shannon players who have been congregating there every day and night since last Sunday.

International

Brian O’Brien was the club’s first Ireland international, to be followed by Brendan Foley, then Ginger McLaughlin, Colm Tucker, Mick Moylett, Michael Galwey, Michael Fitzgibbin, Anthony Foley, Eddie Halvey, Alan Quinlan, John Hayes, Peter Stringer, Marcus Horan, Trevor Hogan, Jerry Flannery, Tony Buckley, Donnacha Ryan, Iain Dowling, Niall Ronan and Felix Jones. All are pictured and framed on one of the walls in the clubhouse.

Brendan Foley played for Shannon from the mid-1970s into the mid-1980s. He was part of the back-to-back Munster Senior Cup-winning sides of 1976-77 and 1977-78. When they had the 40-year reunion two weeks ago to coincide with an AIL game at home to Naas, reluctantly he attended it, missing the Leinster-Munster match in the Aviva Stadium as a result.

Anthony Foley started playing rugby with the Shannon on the under-10 team, and played all the way through their underage ranks.

This week they’ve been looking at old videos of Foley in his teenage years.

John Leahy, chairman of the club, says: “Niall O’Shea and others were talking about old videos they’ve kept of him and the way he worked certain tries, of him pretending to go on one occasion but instead he flicked the ball back through his legs to his scrumhalf, and the scrumhalf went straight in on the blindside without anyone touching him. And he loved that kind of thing.”

The young Foley had come up with that move on the training ground. Always thinking. Always thinking of what worked best for his team.

The scrumhalf was Thady Coughlan junior, whom he also played with all the way through their St Munchin’s years.

Foley broke into the Shannon first team straight after leaving school in 1992. Famously, in their four-in-a-row AIL-winning side of 1994-95 to 1997-98, he played in all 48 games (44 of which they won), captaining them to the fourth of those titles.

Munster then took over, but even when he lost his place with Munster, he came back to play a few games with Shannon in 2006-07.

And, as with St Munchin’s, he always came back if he could, either to Thomond Park or Coonagh. This season, Shannon have a sponsor who would rather remain anonymous. The sponsor suggested a charity and Shannon chose Barnardo’s.

Five weeks ago, Fergus Finlay, the CEO of the children’s charity, came to Thomond Park and many of the club’s former internationals were amongst those in attendance for Shannon’s AIL game at home to Ballymena to commemorate Shannon’s use of Barnardo’s on their shirts.

Framed picture

Foley came along, stayed at the back, underneath the framed picture of celebrated club member Frankie Flynn.

Leahy recalls going over to him and offering to buy him a drink. Foley said he’d have a cup of coffee. He brought the coffee to him. Then Finlay wanted to talk to him and they chatted. Foley posed for a group photo alongside Finlay, Horan, Flannery, O’Brien and their newest member, CJ Stander.

“Thanks a million for being there today Anthony,” Leahy said to him. “It meant a lot to us.”

“Cheers John. It was good to see everyone again.”

That was his last time there. Loyal to the end, his passing will have a unifying effect on the club he served so well.

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