By Harry Hatton
While I was trying to digest the shocking news of the death of Munster head coach Anthony Foley on Sunday, October 16, there was one clip on television that struck a chord with me.
It was from back in 2006 on a day that Munster confirmed themselves as serious players in European rugby. A joyous Munster team gathered on the podium erected on the field at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff waiting for their captain to lift the Heineken Cup.
The captain was none other than Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley. I was almost 12 when Munster won their first European Cup and my only recollection from that match was when Peter Stringer deceived the Biarritz defence by crossing for a try from the blind side following a scrum.
I had completely forgotten that Foley was Munster’s captain on that memorable afternoon in Cardiff. On a team filled with iconic players such as Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes, Foley was chosen as the leader of a heroic group of men.
In that clip, Foley grins and raises his arms up and down to get his teammates and the Munster spectators in the stands ready for the province’s crowning moment. It was in that instance that I realised what Munster, Ireland and the wider rugby world had lost.
The days that followed were incredibly tough for all associated with the great number eight. There was a moving tribute by Munster fans at the gates of Racing 92’s home ground, the French club that Munster were due to play on the day that Foley passed away.
The Munster support had travelled to see their beloved club in action, but instead they were gathered together in a rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ in mourning at the loss of one of the club’s most famous sons.
As the week progressed, it didn’t get any easier for those associated with Foley to come to terms with his sudden death. Captain Peter O’Mahony bowed his head while speaking to the press ahead of the European encounter with Glasgow, trying to keep his motions intact only days after losing his coach and mentor.
On the eve of Foley’s funeral, hordes of Munster fans lined the streets outside Thomond Park as the hearse with his remains drove slowly past. The Munster fans showed their outstanding strength in unity by singing one of their club anthems ‘There Is An Isle’ before breaking into a round of applause as the hearse drove by in the October night.
It was one surprise that Munster’s game with Glasgow went ahead just a day after Foley’s funeral and another surprise the performance that they delivered in honour of their head coach. The home side hammered their Scottish opponents by 21 points despite Keith Earls’ red card in the first half.
It seemed that no matter what team stood in front of Munster last Saturday, there was no way they were not going to win. The Munster players and supporters had endured enough loss without suffering more on the field.
I will be interested in the months ahead to see how Munster cope in the absence of Foley. Will they be able to channel their hurt and frustration into positive energy on the field of play? Or will the loss of such an inspirational figure leave them mentally vulnerable?
There have been instances in the past where teams have responded to tragic loss to achieve great success. Tyrone footballer Cormac McAnallen died in 2004 as a result of a heart condition, a year after he helped his county to their maiden All-Ireland football title.
McAnallen’s teammates reacted to his tragic passing by claiming the Sam Maguire for a second time. That was the holy grail for that Tyrone team.
Munster’s holy grail is the Champions Cup, formerly known as the Heineken Cup, and is a competition that the province has won twice in the past.
If Munster were to claim the trophy for a third time in the near future, as unlikely as it may seem, there is no doubt that the success will be dedicated to one man and one man only, the legendary Anthony Foley.