Liam Toland: It was Anthony’s intelligence that stood out most

He was a modest man who always let his achievements fly well below the radar

Munster fans gathered outside the, Stade Yves-du-Manoir, to pay respects to Munster Rugby coach Anthony Foley, after news of his sudden death in France. Video: Racing 92

 

The first time I played against Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley was in 1989. I was at number eight for St Clement’s and Anthony was at number eight for St Munchin’s. It was the mucky back pitch in the famous Munchin’s where – I can’t remember – we probably lost, but who cares.

In the horrible moments yesterday in Paris between being shocked and being stunned as the news was confirmed of Anthony’s passing, that first game 27 years ago came flooding back to my memory. Even then, as a teenager, I was aware of who Anthony was. That it was a Foley of the famous Foleys of Killaloe, Shannon, Munster and Ireland I was marking, I was very much aware.

His father, the legendary All Blacks slayer Brendan; his mother Sheila, the warm bubbly and extremely generous and classy, classy lady; and then his sisters Rosie and Orla – all legends. Rosie, like the others, played for Ireland but, unsatisfied, went on to swim the English Channel. More have climbed Mount Everest than have swam the channel. What is it about this wonderful family that nothing appears impossible?

Anthony, like his family, was an achiever who had something far greater to give his community than his multiple caps, medals and trophies. Anthony was uniquely modest regarding these achievements, choosing for them to all flow well below the radar.

He’d never burden you with the three tries he scored against Biarritz in Thomond Park or that he could spin passes off both hands or drop kick off either foot as well as any international back.

He wouldn’t talk about the time he welcomed England’s Tim Rodber to Lansdowne Road when he won his first cap having just passed 21 years. Neither would he unload that it was he who hoisted the holy grail of the Heineken Cup over his head way back in 2006; it would never come up.

Second Captains

I recently played him in a round of golf in Shannon Golf Club (yes, Shannon) and that he beat me handsomely always energised him more; never the big stories.

Johannesburg

Our paths crossed and recrossed over the years; Munster Schools, Munster 20s, Munster Seniors, Irish 21s, Irish Students, Ireland A, Irish squads, which took us all over Europe and as far as Johannesburg and most recently as a Classic Lion to Australia in the recent Lions tour.

In Australia, as in South Africa and many other rugby locations, I roomed with him. I think of us stealing the double- bar electric heater from the university in Johannesburg as Irish students to keep us warm under the bulls wool blankets, or breaking into Mick Galwey’s room in London after an ‘A’ game. And I think of a friendship that has endured for 27 years and I realise how little time we actually spent together over those passing years.

Months, even years, could fly by between meeting and yet we’d pick up every time as if we’d lived next door. It could’ve been months but like we did in Shannon Golf Club we’d firstly hug like young ones and then we'd get stuck in.

I’ve had cause over the years to ring him requesting this and that and without fuss he’d always oblige to the extent many who’d meet him in my company would remark how normal he was. What were you expecting?

With all he’s achieved – husband to Olive, father to his two boys and legend within the game making him a national icon – sitting in Café du Stade as I was yesterday across from Stade Yves-du-Manoir I wondered what typified Anthony. Intelligence comes in many guises and Anthony was blessed to be bestowed with many of them.

But his ability to render what most of us complicate into the simplest, clearest, concise form of brilliance was his greatest gift, his greatest intelligence. A gift that was often underestimated by those too ‘quick’ to miss his subtle but brilliant message.

In the modern age of academies built on the back of personal-best bench presses etc, I’m not sure they’ve invented a measure or scale for intelligence, rugby intelligence. Anthony got his first cap over 25 years ago and after RWC 1995 he drifted out of favour for a while, recamping in Shannon and Munster, but a measure of the man was that in the end he amassed 62 Ireland caps and won the holy grail when other ‘athletes’ fell by the wayside.

Of course, my time in Leinster brought new meaning to our friendship. They had David Wallace, Alan Quinlan and Axel. We had Trevor Brennan, Victor Costello and me. Wally the freak, Quinny the athlete and Axel the what? Analysing Munster, I’d often focus on Wally for obvious reasons but Axel was a different matter. I never knew whether to hug him, kiss him or punch him. In hindsight, he would’ve deserved all three.

Thousands of miles away

In 2006 I was in Montevideo in Uruguay coaching Lansdowne when thousands of miles away Axel lifted that European trophy that eluded so many Munster greats. I was as proud and as happy as I’ve ever been when it was he who lifted it. For he, Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley, was everything you’d want your son, your brother, your father to be.

He was a true friend and one that not just I, but Killaloe, St Munchin’s, Shannon, Munster, Ireland, the wonderful Foley family and his immediate family Olive and kids will miss terribly. I will miss him terribly. I’m so, so sad, and I know you are too. “There is an Isle”. . .

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