TV View: Foley's loss shows 'Munster Family' to be something very genuine

Moving documentary was not afraid to tackle dark days Foley suffered as coach

Anthony Foley and Paul O’Connell pictured after Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Leinster at Lansdowne Road in April 2006. Foley went on to lift the trophy in Cardiff as Munster beat Biarritz at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph:  Billy Stickland/Inpho

Anthony Foley and Paul O’Connell pictured after Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Leinster at Lansdowne Road in April 2006. Foley went on to lift the trophy in Cardiff as Munster beat Biarritz at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

It had the feeling of a wake, a gathering of his friends reminiscing and reflecting on the immeasurable part he had played in their lives. But a wake can only ever really be a celebration of a life when there’s no sense that it was taken too soon. The focus of Anthony Foley: Munsterman, then, just a year on from his death, was the depth of loss still felt by those who loved him most.

Ross Whittaker’s documentary for RTÉ opened with the breaking news from Paris that morning, a reminder of the gut-wrenching disbelief with which it was met.

And it only seeming real when Foley was brought home, his coffin draped in the Munster flag, thousands lining the route, his old comrade Noel ‘Buddha’ Healy leading the crowd in the singing of There Is An Isle, the hearse followed by his wife Olive and their sons Tony and Daniel. And there are few more desolating sights than young children walking behind the coffin of their mother or father.

Too often, the narrative around the premature death of our sporting people can fill you with discomfort, far too much weight put on the loss to their club, county, province or nation, not enough on their families and the desperate loneliness of their days ahead.

Anthony Foley photographed by Billy Stickland in 2002.

But you were left with a sense that the ‘Munster Family’ is something very real, not just a banal expression to make a sporting institution seem like something more than it actually is. So while it pales next to the pain of the void left in the lives of his immediate family, you couldn’t but be struck by the impact of Foley’s loss to those Munster men and women who grew to know and love him through his sport.

Leviathans of men, like Keith Wood, Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Jerry Flannery and CJ Stander, talked about how his death had left them broken, and 12 months later they’re no closer to coming to terms with his absence from their lives.

O’Connell found some comfort in those bleak early days when he was surrounded by his old Munster friends, but he struggled when he was alone with his thoughts. Even if you knew nothing of Anthony Foley and his life, the effect of his loss on men like O’Connell gave you a notion of how cherished a friend he was. And O’Connell’s tears would bring to mind the first and maybe only time you ever saw your father cry, when before then you believed that men of steel were incapable of displaying such emotion.

“Anthony would find it a bit funny that he was responsible for emotional intelligence in men going up a notch in our country,” Orla laughed, and you’d an idea that Foley would have laughed too at his sister’s ribbing of his old colleagues. And you guessed he was on the receiving end plenty of times too: Rosie, his other sister, having a giggle at an old photo of her brother after she’d beaten him in swimming. “The face wasn’t happy,” she laughed, and it wasn’t either. He most probably was never allowed forget his defeat.

But, to its credit, the documentary didn’t shy away from less happy memories and the time when the ‘Munster Family’ felt like a cold place for Foley. “The atmosphere was toxic,” said Conor Murray of the spell when the team struggled under Foley after he had been appointed coach, the Munster Branch keeping from him the nastiest of the letters sent, a few boos ringing around Thomond Park.

“Certainly I feel that stress didn’t help Anthony as he went along,” said Rosie, echoing Olive’s words in her powerful eulogy at his funeral, when she spoke of “the pressure and the hurt” of those days, when no one was more pained by Munster’s struggles than him.

It was a far cry from that 2006 day in Cardiff. There were tears then too, but of the joyous kind, Munster finally winning the Heineken Cup after the heartache of their 2000 and 2002 defeats, Foley raising the trophy. “It was my first time hugging my Da,” said Murray, a spectator back then. “I have to play for Munster one day,” Simon Zebo decided when he saw the throngs of celebrating supporters back on Limerick’s O’Connell Street.

“To have watched this guy growing up, and then to feel blessed to get in to the squad, and then to be led by him and to be guided by him to Munster’s first Heineken Cup . . . it was absolutely beautiful,” said O’Connell of a memory he’ll hold dear forever and a day.

The most poignant of moments were when Foley’s voice filled the air. “He was a hero to me growing up,” he said of his father Brendan. “He was a man you aspired to be as good as. And if you could do that, you’d done a good job.”

As his friends and family attested, Anthony Foley did a very fine job in the all too brief time he was given.

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