Gerry Thornley: Munster mourn loss of a rugby son
Sporting fraternity across country in shock at untimely death of head coach in Paris
Munster head coach Anthony Foley passed away in Paris ahead of their Champions Cup clash with Racing 92. Photo: Inpho
As the coach containing the Racing Metro squad and management turned into the Stade Yves-du-Manoir on a sun- kissed Sunday in the Colombes suburb of Paris about an hour and a quarter before the scheduled 4.15pm kick-off, the scarcely comprehensible news that Anthony Foley had passed away had already filtered through to the thousand or more Munster fans outside the ground who had made the trip.
Shocked and bewildered, they mingled outside the closed gates with those wearing the blue and white of Racing Metro. A statement by the IRFU and Munster had confirmed the news of Foley’s death just after 1.40pm Irish time (2.40pm local time) and that their opening European Champions Cup match had been postponed.
Foley (42) had been found in his room in the Munster team hotel earlier that morning, but no statement could be issued until all the members of his family had been informed of the truly tragic news. This included his father Brendan, who had travelled over to the game.
Emotional renditionThe Fields of AthenryThere is an Isle
An impromptu memorial was then set up, as members of the Red Army draped Munster flags and jerseys onto the railings outside the main entrance, and signed books of condolences. Club officials with Racing Metro provided additional notebooks, and when a 15-year-old Munster jersey – claimed to have been worn by Foley – was also tied to the railings, the same officials said they would have the players sign the jersey and put it on display in the club museum. It was a nice touch.
One member of the official Munster supporters club said: “Our condolences and sympathies are with Anthony’s extended family. We’ve lost a leader, and we’ve lost someone ingrained in Munster both in terms of its life and its spirit. When we think of him, we will think of him in celebration in trying to sum up what he meant to us, the fans, the team and the organisation.”
Foley’s one-time Munster and Ireland team-mate Ronan O’Gara, who is now one of the Racing Metro assistant coaches, emerged from the stadium and spoke to another former Munster and Ireland player, Donal Lenihan, while one of Racing’s coaches, Laurent Labit, spoke to the media inside.
“It was not just in Munster and Irish rugby that Anthony Foley is respected,” said Labit. “It is a terrible shock. He is respected in France for his performances for Munster and Ireland. He is part of the history of Munster, he is Monsieur Munster, the same as Serge Blanco in Biarritz or Philippe Sella in Agen. It is a tragedy.”
Labit said it was difficult as well for Ronan O’Gara, and his thoughts were also with his assistant coach. “They have been great friends and colleagues for years. This was the last thing anyone expected coming here to play a match.”
The tournament organisers, along with Racing and Munster, will have to find an alternative for the re-arranged game. Last season, Racing’s opening game at home to Glasgow, and Munster’s second game in Paris, against Stade Francais in Paris, also had to be re-scheduled for the second weekend in January due to the Paris atrocities.
Furthermore, pending a post-mortem, which takes from two to seven days, only then will Foley’s remains be released to the family for burial. Given the timing of a funeral, this has to raise questions as to the European Champions Cup game between Munster and Glasgow going ahead as scheduled next Saturday at Thomond Park.
“It’s in the values of rugby to respect the opponent when he has a bad break,’ said Jacky Lorenzetti, the president of Racing, said. “And it’s also in the values of rugby to be brave. So we are going to try to be brave together.”
Game he loved
“Widely known for his extensive knowledge of the game and rugby brain, Axel brought so much to the province as a player and then a coach. A very popular figure off the field, he was an incredibly likeable character with a great sense of humour and he lived life to the full.
“Always maintaining his strong family connections to his native Killaloe in Clare, Axel was hugely proud of his community and where he came from.
“My earliest memory of Axel is when he was playing number eight for St Munchin’s in his teens and the hunger and passion he showed even then was evident to all. Never a man to back down from a challenge, Anthony’s determination on the field was mirrored by his actions off it, always honest in everything he did. His legacy will live on in the next generation and beyond. Anthony will be sorely missed and the thoughts from everyone in the game are with his family at this time.”
The Leinster Branch CEO Mick Dawson and many more joined in the tributes on Twitter. This included Brian O’Driscoll: “Can’t quite believe it. So incredibly sad. My thoughts are with Olive, his boys & and his extended family.” Jonny Wilkinson tweeted: “How incredibly sad to hear about the passing of the great Anthony Foley. With enormous respect and deepest sympathy for his family.” And expressing his sadness on hearing the news, the former world player of the year and French captain Thierry Dusautoir described him as “A great player and opponent!”
Books of condolence will be opened across Munster in memory of Foley. As a mark of respect the seven local authorities in Munster will open books of condolence at 12.00pm today. The Irish flag will also be flown at half mast outside the local authority offices.