Loose Pass

Date published: October 18 2016

This week we can only concern ourselves with one thing – remembering Munster legend Anthony Foley.

There might have been lots. Was Matt Toomua’s tackle worthy of a red? What, actually, has happened to Toulouse – or Leicester for that matter? Has the PRO12 turned a corner? Has Toulon’s Galactico policy begun to turn seriously sour?

Can anyone stop Saracens? Can Clermont throw off their European bridesmaid dress this time or will it take them as long as it did to throw off their Top 14 one?

There was the forming of opinion on Eddie Jones’ repeated call to beat the All Blacks at one’s own game rather than at theirs.

But then all analytical processes were stopped. All discussions of financial policy, quality play, national culture, underdogs and favourites rendered irrelevant. The untimely passing of a terrific person will do that.

The last 12 months have been an ugly year for most aspects of humanity, and rugby has not been spared. Jonah Lomu, Dickie Jeeps, John Gainsford… players from different generations and corners of the earth, all men revered and respected by their peers. And now Anthony Foley’s name joins that illustrious and unhappy list.

‘True rugby great’ was one tribute. ‘Great rugby man’ was another. ‘Proper rugby bloke’. ‘True legend’. ‘Incredible rugby brain’. ‘Honest, fearless, loyal, funny’. Friends and former on-pitch foes united in respect and admiration for a man who had really lived only slightly more than half his rugby life, when you consider what he would have likely offered to Munster with a career in coaching.

I was fortunate enough to be able to meet him one time only, to shake his hand on what might have been his proudest day: when he led the team that finally broke the Munster curse in the 2006 Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff. In his other hand was the Cup itself. The day before he’d refused to touch it at the pre-Final photocall. The job’s not done until it’s done.

“Did you enjoy it?” I asked. “Ahhh, it was grand,” he said with a massive smile that pushed his cheeks up so much his eyes were almost closed. “And I think it’s only just beginning.”

Not entirely true for him: that match in 2006 was near the end of Munster’s most iconic European period, one in which Foley missed only one of Munster’s 78 European matches, an extraordinary record. He ended a playing career two years later having amassed a record 202 appearances for Munster and 62 for Ireland.

His accession to a Munster coaching jacket was only a matter of time. Already he had been likened to a ‘coach on the pitch’ by national team coach Eddie O’Sullivan.

He was once asked by a journalist how come he used to run faster than his opposite numbers even though they were, in fact, faster than him. “I start before them,” he said. Funny, to be sure, but also true. His knack for reading the game was right up there with the McCaws, Hills and Williamses of the professional era.

And it was no easy start. His five years in the coaches’ booth have coincided with a decidedly lean spell by Munster’s hitherto bright standards. But you will not find a soul in team or wider rugby world who would give you cause to doubt for a second that Foley’s role in Munster’s coaching staff is one that would have endured.

His work ethic, spirit, passion for his province and ability to coax the best out of his players. Fly-half Ian Keatley has already publicly remembered being invited over for a relaxing afternoon of pizza at the coach’s house the day after a bad performance. No video session, no long chat. Just pizza, kids and banter.

Foley apparently used to store up losses mentally into what he called a ‘Bitterness Bank’, something he could draw on when a little extra motivation was needed.

All his Munster and Shannon team-mates old and new have told of his passion for his province, the size of the heart he wore on his sleeve, how each win was a moment to savour and each loss visibly struck Foley deep inside.

That bank has now shut, and those Foley has left behind are the ones left with the bitter loss. ‘Senseless’ is one word that has been used time and time again all over Munster.

For all those whom rugby has lost in 2016 there was at least a certain rationality to the passing in old age and/or illness. Foley’s departure defies any rationality at all.

As Keith Wood put it: “something is wrong when a father buries his son…it’s heartbreaking. It’s wrong. It brings the sense of mortality very close… for a young man to fall in his pomp.” David Corkery has expressed it just as well: “Why not a lesser being? Someone without kids.”

RIP Anthony Foley. Sorely missed from the game.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens