MUNSTER have enjoyed success and endured heartbreak in almost measure across Europe in the professional era, but nothing ever prepared them for a day as dark.
The death of their head coach and their former captain Anthony Foley, aged just 42, stunned not just Munster fans everywhere yesterday, but rugby supporters throughout the world.
He was steeped in the folklore of Munster and Irish rugby. His father Brendan starred for Shannon, Munster and Ireland, and Anthony followed him every step of the way before charting his own course to make him one of the most iconic Irish rugby figures of the professional era.
President Michael D Higgins led the tributes on Sunday when News emerged that the father of two had been found dead in bed in the team hotel as they prepared for their opening game of the Champions Cup against Racing 92.
The fact that Foley’s long-time Munster and Irish colleague Ronan O’Gara is now assistant coach with the French champions only added another layer of intrigue to the contest, with around 1000 Munster fans making the trip.
The introduction of South African Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby this season had relieved Foley of some of the duties and colleagues observed that he was much more relaxed this season in his role as head coach.
He grew up wanting to emulate his father, who was on the Munster side which defeated the All Blacks in 1978, and early promise with St Munchin’s was transferred into a superb Shannon side which dominated the All-Ireland League.
“The hard edge and the lessons we learned in tough clubs matches was what laid the foundation for the Munster success in Europe,” said hooker Frankie Sheahan, an opponent with Cork Con but teammate with Munster and Ireland.
Foley played over 200 games for Munster and captained Ireland in three of his 62 appearances.
The inspirational No.8, after suffering two Heineken Cup defeats, led them to the promised land in 2006 when he skippered them to victory over Biarritz and he picked up a second medal two years later.
“It is with great sadness that I heard of the sudden death of Anthony Foley, the Munster rugby team’s head coach and one of the great figures of Irish sport in the modern era,” said president Higgins.
Former Munster, Ireland and Lions lock Donal Lenihan, on media duty in Paris yesterday, said Foley’s death had stunned the sporting world.
“At 42 years of age, things like this aren’t supposed to happen, especially to a fit, athletic man … it’s unbelievable.”
“Limerick is a mad rugby city, the rivalry between all the clubs there is intense, but when something like this happens, I think it just brings the whole rugby community together.”
Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald said they were struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.
“We are shocked and deeply saddened by today’s news and the sudden passing of a Munster rugby great, our head coach, former player, colleague and friend Anthony Foley.
“Our immediate thoughts are with Axel’s family, his wife Olive and his two sons Tony and Dan, father Brendan who is here in Paris with us, mother Sheila, sisters Orla and Rosie and the extended Foley family.
“Anthony was the embodiment of Munster Rugby and dedicated his life to the game he loved. From St Munchin’s to Shannon, Munster and then Ireland, Anthony was a true rugby great.
“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.
“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,” said Fitzgerald.
Racing 92 joint coach Laurent Labit said that the death of Anthony Foley had caused shock throughout France.
And Labit said he appreciated how difficult this time is for his assistant coach Ronan O’Gara following the death of his friend and former colleague.
O’Gara had spoken in the build-up to the game how difficult it was to prepare a team to play against his beloved Munster.
Labit said that the thoughts of his club and French rugby was with Anthony Foley’s family.
“It was not just in Munster and Irish rugby that Anthony Foley is respected.
“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 a 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,” added Labit.
The scarves and flags which the Munster fans brought with them were supposed to be for cheering the Reds to another famous win on French soil.
Instead many of them ended up displayed on an impromptu shrine outside Stade Yves du Manoir in north-west France, as Munster fans came to terms with the shock death of a man steeped in the folklore of the province.
Gus O’Loughlin, an Ennistymon native living in Cork, lamented the passing of his fellow Clare man at the age of 42.
“We are absolutely shocked. It’s unbelievable. I remember the days in Shannon and all that. A great family and I’m so sorry to see what’s happened. Very sad.
” We come to all the matches. It’s nice to get away and get out and Travel with Munster. But we were up in the pub and it was a French man trying to translate to us what was happening. Eventually I rang my wife to find out exactly what had happened. She looked up the website and found it. Couldn’t believe it. My daughter is the same. She just texted me this minute. She couldn’t believe.”
The Munster fans held a minute’s silence, then they clapped for a minute before belting out ‘The Fields of Athenry’ and the Shannon anthem ‘There is an Isle’.
Mick Quillan is a Munster fan living in the Netherlands but is originally from Cork and had come down for another great weekend of rugby.
“We didn’t believe it when we heard the news. It’s unbelievable. It’s hard to take in. I remember his dad, Brendan Foley, as a player. It’s a rugby family. A terrible loss.
“I’ve lived abroad for 27 years so rugby is my link with Ireland. I go to the matches, particularly in France, when I was living in Brussels. A couple of the lads come down from Brussels. But it is hard to remember the words trying to sing the songs today. We are just shocked.”
Fionnuala McCurtain of the Munster Supporters Travel said that about 1,000 Reds fans were expected for the game against Racing 92.
“We thought it was going to be just another great Munster day out.
“Hopes were high. We were hoping of course for a good win and at worst the bonus point. Nobody expected news like this. It’s so sad.
“We found out on our way in on the coach but it wasn’t confirmed. They needed to notify family. We did arrive here and then the word was out but it wasn’t officially confirmed until all the family were notified.”
She said that supporters wanted to show their respects before leaving the ground after the game was called off as people came to terms with the terrible news.
“Hopefully in the future we’ll play a match in his honour when hopefully his family could attend.
“But it’s such an emotional moment. They’re singing and people know what he brought to the team and to his country. There isn’t a dry eye here today. It was the same for the French supporters. They all respected so much what the Munster supporters were going through.
“This is life. Our sport, we must remember, much as we love it and we make it our life, it is a sport whereas this is a real life event. We send out sympathies to Olive, his wife, the children, his parents. It’s just horrendous.
“No parent should have to bury a child. It’s that simple. He was a young man.”
Source : HeraldScotland