Murray Kinsella reports from Paris
A warm, sunny afternoon at Stade-Yves-du-Manoir brought with it some optimism for Munster earlier today, but that mood was utterly shattered just hours before kick-off by the shocking news of Anthony Foley’s death.
Word began to filter through as the majority of supporters and media arrived at the stadium, with the devastating official confirmation following swiftly.
That Racing 92′s team bus pulled up to the stadium within minutes of the IRFU’s statement being circulated told the story of how quickly all of this unfolded.
Moments after there had been a skip in the arriving fans’ step, the crowd stood and stared at the ground, attempting to register the barely believable news that ‘Axel,’ a true legend of rugby, had passed away overnight.
The gates remained shut, not a single fan had even entered the Colombes ground. Down by the changing rooms, we bumped into Ronan O’Gara but the Munster man was literally speechless and simply shook his head in disbelief as he looked to get home to his family.
Outside, the Munster fans soon gathered in a group of several hundred near the présidentielle entrance, where they burst into a minute’s applause in tribute to their fallen hero.
‘The Fields’ was powerful, with tears among the crowd, and ‘There is an Isle’ was fitting in memory of a man who will always be remembered as a legend of Shannon RFC too.
Surreal scenes that won’t be forgotten.
One fan, Rob Kiely, brought forward a book of condolences, which the Munster faithful and some of the Racing supporters quietly queued up to sign, sharing their own cherished memories of Axel.
And what a wide range of memories they had to choose from. Everyone involved with Munster rugby and Irish rugby will have their own personal favourite recollection of one of the finest players to wear the red and green jerseys.
For this writer, watching Anthony Foley score a hat-trick of tries in a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Biarritz was a seminal moment in discovering a true love of the sport. The programme from that game remains tucked away at home, a reminder of that particular realisation that there was something special about this game.
Racing coach Laurent Labit shared a few words in the media room after Munster’s fans had produced their poignant scene, underlining that Foley is regarded as a legend in the French game too.
Munster’s playing squad and coaching staff were all back in their base at the Novotel Longchamp, where one can only imagine the sense of shock and grief. The southern province must deal with losing a coach, an ex-team-mate, a mentor and a friend.
It was never going to be possible to play this afternoon’s game, of course, and one wonders what kind of place this squad will be in for next weekend’s scheduled clash against Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park. Rugby can seem so meaningless at moments like these.
And yet, you sense that Foley himself would underline the power of the game in difficult times, its ability to unite and play a part in the grieving process and the healing that must follow.
Munster’s thoughts are with Foley’s family – wife Olive and sons Tony and Dan. He leaves behind sisters Orla and Rosie, his mother Sheila and his father Brendan – a Munster legend in his own right.
Brendan was en route to watch the team play at Stade-Yves-du-Manoir when the horrible news was confirmed. Everyone in rugby has shared their condolences with the bereaved family, the scope of the international reaction speaking volumes of the esteem Foley was held in.
He will be remembered as one of the great characters of Munster, a genuine, good man.
He combined perfectly the values of the amateur and professional eras, bringing an understanding of the emotive side of rugby, the power of playing for something, for the people who meant most to him, for his friends, and sometimes for the craic.
That was melded to his unique understanding of the game, an ability to analyse games even as they unfolded in front of him, his uncanny habit of being a couple of phases ahead of everyone.
Foley was always good to deal with as a coach. Even when Munster had had a poor day last season, he fronted up and attempted to answer every single question thoroughly and honestly. The 42-year-old didn’t seem to know any other way.
Late in his playing career, he was good with young players coming into the Munster set-up. There were standards to be met, of course, but the number eight was accommodating in ensuring that newcomers didn’t feel on the outside.
As a coach, his technical excellence was highly rated by players. The same tactical brain that made him such a rounded and intelligent player transferred well into teaching the technical skills required in top-level rugby.
Clearly, the all-encompassing demands of being a head coach are tough for anyone, but this season had seen Foley bring a refreshed energy to his work on the training ground – the work he truly loved and wanted to do.
It is all the sadder that Foley looked so happy and healthy this season, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He was back doing what he did best and he had a bright coaching future ahead of him.
More importantly, he had a bright future as a father, a husband and a friend to so many people ahead of him.
It is hard to comprehend that Foley will not be able to live that future. 62 Ireland caps, endless memorable days with Munster and a reputation as a good man that went before him – Foley will be dearly missed.