IN A WAY, Friday evening at the RDS will be about Anthony Foley doing what he’s always done – bringing people together.
John Kelly – his former Munster team-mate and a man who worked with him right up until his passing in Paris last October – is one of many of Foley’s friends who will tog out for the Ireland Legends against the England Legends in his honour on St. Patrick’s Day, with kick-off at 6pm.
Ronan O’Gara, David Wallace, Marcus Horan, Mick O’Driscoll, Shane Byrne, Tony Buckley, Shane Jennings, Alan Quinlan, Liam Toland, Jerry Flannery, Anthony Horgan, Gordon D’Arcy.
The list goes on, everyone eager to be involved. The visiting English squad, meanwhile, includes the likes of Mike Tindall, Tom May, Mark Cueto and Ollie Phillips.
Many of these men are carrying the scars of their former lives as professional players – there have even been several injuries in the past week as understandably dormant bodies have been pushed into action again – but playing on this occasion is a no-brainer for all of them.
Each of them will have their own strong memories of playing with and against Foley, or simply being in his company.
“Anthony was always the quiet guy,” says Kelly, who last played in this Legends fixture three years ago at the Twickenham Stoop. “He wasn’t the fella to have big long conversations with, you’d have a few points and that would be it.
“It took me two or three years before I realised that, ‘Geez, this guy is a good friend of mine now.’ You picked up from being around him that he really took an interest in people without necessarily showing it.
“He might surprise you by saying something. He used to go away and think about things and think about things that would work for you. Not just on the rugby pitch, but personally. I hear a lot of different stories from people where he might have rung them out of the blue.”
Kelly is a Munster legend in his own right, spending 10 years playing alongside Foley from 1997 until 2007, earning more than 150 caps and helping them to success in the 2006 Heineken Cup final, when he started at outside centre.
Kelly, who won 17 caps for Ireland, is now working with Deloitte but combines that full-time job with a role as chairman of Munster’s Professional Game Board, an entirely voluntary position.
As such, Kelly worked alongside Foley in his years as Munster head coach and was in Paris last year when the former number eight passed away.
Kelly has been blown away by how people have reacted ever since.
“I was in the hotel on the day which was absolutely shocking,” says Kelly. “But the reaction from people right from the get-go, whether it was the people in the hotel, Ryanair – who didn’t want it publicised – but the contribution they made directly from Michael O’Leary, Shannon Airport, the people of Limerick, Shannon rugby club, St. Munchin’s, everyone.
“It was unbelievable how the community came together. Another guy who was incredible was Woody [Keith Wood], who held the fort back in Killaloe. Everybody wanted to actually try and help if they could.
“A lot of the former players, we got together and it was like the old bond was back together. Axel led us like that in a lot of ways and he led us again through his passing.”
Munster’s form on the pitch since Foley’s passing has been exceptional and initially much of that was put down to the emotional reaction sparked in the coaching and playing staff.
That has been important, of course, and will continue to be long into the future, but Kelly and the rest of the Munster set-up felt that the squad was moving in that direction anyway under a coaching staff that had Foley working alongside Rassie Erasmus.
“I’ve spoken to one or two of the players and, totally unprompted, they’ve said that they felt like that day in Paris, when the Racing game was supposed to happen,” says Kelly, “they felt like they had the measure of it, they had the game plan sussed, were starting to perform really well.
“Anthony was very, very happy within the group and it was really working together, coaches and players. I think it was going to start at that point anyway.”
Much of Kelly and the PGB’s remit is to be look one or two years into the future, attempting to safeguard Munster for challenges that lie ahead, but the province looks to be moving in the right direction once again under South African director of rugby Erasmus.
“He’s a very special individual,” says Kelly. “He’s a very impressive guy. What you see in the TV interviews is what you get, he’s not shouting and roaring.
“He’s a very humble individual but very focused and has a great ability to get the most out of people around him.”
Kelly is excited to see young players like Darren Sweetnam, Conor Oliver and Dan Goggin emerging impressively for Munster too, given the longstanding ethos of promoting from within, while he is also happy with the province’s Irish-qualified recruitment for next season.
“Rassie and Munster have bought into the fact that we’re trying to make the national team stronger, so part of that is recruiting Irish players,” says Kelly.
“Munster are very happy to have players like JJ Hanrahan, Chris Farrell and James Hart coming back. It’s great to have players of that calibre join.”
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