Anthony Foley was without doubt one of the most popular and respected figures in European rugby and since the announcement yesterday afternoon that he had died at the Munster team hotel in Paris there has been a worldwide outpouring of grief and shock.
Foley had been Munster’s head coach since 2014 but Garrett Fitzgerald, Munster CEO, said that Axel, as he was affectionately known, was more than that, that he was the “embodiment of Munster Rugby.”
He played 62 times for Ireland between 1995 and 2005, then an Irish record for a No. 8, but he was best known for his role in the emergence of Munster as a European rugby power.
The province reached the Heineken Cup final twice before at last winning the trophy in 2006 by defeating the French club Biarritz in Cardiff and Anthony Foley was the captain who got to lift the trophy.
His contribution to Munster’s success can be measured in numbers, his 71 consecutive appearances in Cup games remains a record, while his total of 23 tries is still the most by a forward.
But numbers do not tell the whole story.
Tyrone Howe, Foley’s former Ireland teammate, told Sky TV on yesterday that Foley was “both ultracompetitive and a natural leader.”
Whatever the odds against Munster, Howe said, Foley “always managed to get them moving forward by taking the right decisions at the right time.”
Keith Wood, former captain and teammate, called Foley “the smartest rugby player I have ever had the honour of playing with or against.”
In 2008, his final season as a player, Foley was no longer the team’s captain or a regular starter.
But he was still, as former teammate Ronan O’Gara recalled, capable of jump-starting Munster’s second successful Heineken campaign with inspiring words after a substandard training session.
“His words,” O’Gara said, “carried the same weight as ever.”
Foley’s graduation to Munster’s coaching ranks, first as an assistant and then as head coach, seemed all but inevitable.
His early death comes just as the team, after a long period of transition, appeared to be on the verge of renewed success.
Fans gathered yesterday outside the gates of the Stade Colombes, where Munster’s match against Racing 92 had been postponed, and sang “Fields of Athenry.”
In a statement, President Michael D. Higgins, hailed Foley as “one of the true giants of Irish sport in the modern era.”
Today books of condolence for Anthony Foley will be opened at the offices of seven Munster councils, An online book of condolences has also been opened by Limerick City and County Council.
People can leave their names and messages of tribute on the Council’s website.
A book will also be opened at the University of Limerick Sport Arena.
Here in Dublin the IRFU say their offices on Lansdowne Road will be open for fans who wish to sign a book of condolences.
Sports Minister Shane Ross, speaking on RTE Radio’s Morning Ireland earlier, paid a glowing tribute to Anthony Foley.
“It’s absolutely tragic, not just for sport, but for the whole nation, at a time when Irish sportsmen and sportswomen are seen as ambassadors for Ireland.
“It’s a terrible day for all sports people in Ireland.
“Anthony Foley was an absolute star who starred not just on but off the field.
“He was a great ambassador for Ireland at a time when all sports players and all sportsmen and sportswomen and the fans are holding the flag for the nation.
“This is reflected in the outpouring of grief that is coming not just from Limerick, not just from my department not just from Ireland but has come from all over the world in the last 24 hours.”
Anthony Foley was born in Limerick on Oct. 30, 1973. He is survived by his wife, Olive; their sons, Tony and Dan; his parents, Brendan and Sheila; and his sisters, Rosie, also a member of Ireland’s national rugby team, and Orla.