One year on: Munster still living through Anthony Foley’s life and death

RTÉ documentary tells the story of the Shannon, Munster and Ireland rugby man

The boys have incorporated Axel into a lot of things we do. It's not something we talk every now and then about, and it's not something I'm saying to make it sound like this story, because it is really the truth. His office is right next to mine and we do certain things there. Team talks and some things in the team environment, we keep him there  Rassie Erasmus

Watching Paul O’Connell’s usually invincible demeanour crumbling on camera is deeply unpleasant.

“As long as we were with each other it was all right,” says O’Connell about those dark days when the global rugby community descended upon Killaloe, “but if you were on your own at all it was . . . it was . . . it wasn’t a good week.”

Doesn't feel like 12 months. Doesn't feel like 12 weeks. On Monday night RTÉ are telling a story about the life Anthony Foley. It is a harrowing account right up to and beyond that morning when a 42-year-old coach, a father of two boys, passed away in a Paris hotel room, because an undetected heart disorder led to a fatal lung condition, hours before the opening Champions Cup match against Racing 92.


The game could not be played that day. Anyone ever associated with the Munster rugby family felt the devastation. This is a truthful story, cleanly told, with valve releasing humour supplied by the Foley sisters, Rosie and Orla.

The documentary might prove too disturbing for some to sit through the entire hour. Expertly constructed by director Ross Whittaker Adrian McCarthy of Wildfire Films (who made ‘Hidden Impact’ about concussion in rugby), a year on it feels too soon for many of the people so keen to talk about their friend, their brother, their hero. None of whom can be expected to have fully processed any of this madness.

In time this will be an important tribute to a legendary leader but this week people are struggling to understand why the grumpy, honest, funny, loyal man called Axel is gone.

From the beginning, from Brendan Foley thundering into All Blacks in 1978, when his four-year-old son was left home, we get a glimpse into one of the great Irish sporting families. A story of Limerick men being sinned against, kept off Ireland teams until Shannon forcibly took control of the game on this island. Anthony Foley, Mick Galway, Bull Hayes and the rest of them. Of a monumental career, with miracle victories heaped upon agonising failures until Foley captains Munster to the ultimate prize in 2006 – causing guttural roars in the Millennium stadium and on O'Connell Street simply by raising his palms to heaven "like a little kid".

Of dark days, when angry Munster people turned on him, and there stood Axel all alone, taking the heaviest flack onto himself. Of the horrendous stress each European loss delivered.

This all feels too soon, but perhaps it is fitting that the nation remembers him on the anniversary. And many old friends are willing, because it is easy to talk about Anthony Foley.

This is a story about wonderful sporting moments. Led Zeppelin takes us into the mystical rise of Munster in the 2000s. Of defeat at Twickenham to Northampton. Of Rog missing kicks yet remembering how three wise men – Gallimh, Claw and Axel – no matter the circumstances, even if you were “100 per cent wrong, they’d have your back.”

There’s Foley in full red armour showing the delicacy of a Clare hurler, grubbering down the tramline, travelling the silk road from fun-fuelled amateurism into the wincing era of professional beasts.

“Ask Axel to do fitness and there’s no way you’d select him as a professional player,” says O’Gara who, as a Racing 92 coach, is part of this story to the bitter end. “Give Axel a ball [flicks to him carrying like a train]. How is he always first in support? Why is he always in the right place?

“Because he had unbelievable brain power.”

There comes a love story in between the rugby, Olive being a school friend of Orla Foley, and a new family blossoms.

Keith Wood is a pal from Killaloe and so much more in between. Rugged lads turning pitch and putt into contact sport. Imagine them two armed with scimitars. Flayed skin, splintered ash. Rugby saves many a hurler's knuckle.

“I always loved the fact that Olive didn’t have a clue what Anthony did,” Wood remembers. “Olive spent the first six months of their relationship trying to get him a steady job . . . she was magic for him.”

Liam Toland, Foley's opposite number in school, a team-mate, a room-mate, feels that "coaching Munster was his destiny". This is unquestionable truth but the timing of it all reverberates. "He wanted to built a dynasty almost," says Simon Zebo. "Build a squad and organisation that could dominate Europe." Conor Murray speaks about the "toxic" atmosphere that descended on Thomond Park like fog, as Munster failed to escape the pool stages two seasons running. The booing.

"We were miserable man, absolutely miserable" goes Jerry Flannery, a kid who saw this Munchin's giant become his team-mate and he became an assistant to Foley the head coach. "It was torture".

The father’s pub in Limerick was where Flannery heard old men bemoan Dublin bias, where he saw their joy as Foley scored a try on debut against England, where perhaps Axel came to drink porter out of the European Cup.

Flannery is awfully close to this story too. He saw the indescribable alchemy “that gave us all these opportunities, these great memories” and then “it felt like it was dying and we couldn’t help it”.

All on Axel’s watch.

Niall O'Donovan kept the worst letters sent into the Branch away from him. Twice Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald ignored Foley's offer to resign.

Rosie Foley: “Certainly I feel that stress didn’t help Anthony as he went along.”

Then came Rassie. The director of rugby role invented a year ahead of strategic planning. Along with Jacques Nienaber, Erasmus brought clarity that maybe only an experienced outsider could bring. Erasmus read Foley's comments in the newspaper and knew there was a potential problem.

“We had to decide,” says the South African, “‘Listen, you are on probation here, are you going to go another year or are we cutting you out of the thing?’”

Very quickly Erasmus realised he had more than an ally, he had the beating heart of Munster in the office next door.

“The day Rassie came in was the day Anthony started smiling again,” says Wood. What happened on October 16th, 2016 is told by those hurt the most, those able to find the words.

The day starts with a sun rise jog to the Eiffel tower (“The coaches would go for a run, Axel didn’t run,” Flannery laughs) and players saw their coaches removing cob webs after memorable last pints the night before.

The next few scenes are distressing as Munster men and Foley’s sisters recount where they were, how they had to tell others who needed to know quickly, and who called who across a day that cannot be erased.

“It’s not normal, there is something wrong here,” says Stander about returning to the hotel after a lineout session without their lineout coach. “Some energy is broken.”

O’Donovan had to locate Brendan Foley, who was in Paris, and tell him his son had died. The sisters had to make sure their mother, Sheila, didn’t see it on television in the local café.

“What do you mean Anthony didn’t wake up?” asks Rosie Foley. “Anthony is 42.”

Peter O’Mahony rang O’Connell. Garrett Fitzgerald called O’Gara who immediately came to the hotel. “Unfortunately that image can’t get out of my head.”

The next few days in Limerick are touched by sorrow, strength too, but mostly devastation. Noel Buddha Healy singing 'There is an Isle' as the coffin rolls past the Shannon club house, Foley's playground as both boy and man.

“The stones on the road know that the last two years have been very stressful for Anthony in Munster,” says Olive Foley from the pulpit. “But he took that job as head coach, and he gave it everything with the same passion he gave it when he put on his jersey.”

It’s all very raw, until Orla Foley makes us laugh out loud at the sight of all these giants embracing, “Anthony would find it a bit funny that he’s responsible for emotional intelligence in men going up a notch in our country.”

Munster play Glasgow a day after the funeral. The people return to fill Thomond Park. Flannery talks about the magic he thought was dying. “That game for me showed it is not, it is still there.”

There is no redemption, no happy ending. This is a story about the untimely departure of a great man, a husband to Olive and father to Dan and Tony.

The game always moves on. Turns out Joe Schmidt came up with the figure of eight idea in Chicago, Johnny Sexton prompted the Munster men to stand up the front and stare back at the wide-eyed haka. The Maoris come to Limerick on an Angela Ashes night, pay a special tribute, and are washed away. Flannery is right – whoever wears the jersey can become superhuman.

On Sunday Munster return to France for the Champions Cup against Castres. Personnel keeps changing but the club refuses to move on. They utterly refuse to leave Axel behind.

“Obviously this week last year flying over there he was still with us,” said Erasmus last Tuesday. “Castres is a different city and we will handle it differently but I think it is all such positive vibes. I don’t think there are negatives or sadness around it, it is nice to talk about him, it is nice to laugh about the things he said on that night. We are just going to try and use that energy rather than let it hamper us.”

It’s still too soon. Too raw for O’Gara, O’Connell, all of them. But the energy will never be broken again. That much is clear.

Anthony Foley: Munsterman. RTÉ One, Monday 9.35pm

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent