“Every time we play, every time we do anything – it’s for Axel.”
Keith Earls talking about a man that, until last October, I had never heard of. The untimely death of Anthony Foley hit the nation like a tonne of bricks. Someone that had been so important to the country, the province of Munster, the county that has adopted me as one of its own, on October 16, 2016, just didn’t wake up.
My limited knowledge of Munster rugby did not stretch so far as to know the players’ names, not even the legendary former player and coach. Until, that is, the day of his death. Even being outside of the country, as I was that day, escaping the news was impossible as the small island of Ireland went into mourning- a mourning that spread across the globe reaching rugby fans worldwide.
Returning to the University of Limerick in September, his presence was still felt: his name would be mentioned by other students a lot, seeing interviews by Munster rugby players knowing that they’re still hurting over the loss of their mentor and friend. Because stripping back his high profile, that’s what he was. He was a friend, a brother, a son, a husband, a father.
Although I was aware of the fact that Axel Foley was an idol to many fans of Munster rugby, I didn’t know much about the legacy he was leaving behind and the impact he had had on the whole country. Unfortunately, people pass away before their time every day. My heart went out to the family he left behind, but I didn’t dwell much on the news and continued on oblivious to the life he had led before his passing.
My eyes were opened by the documentary shown on RTÉ One, ‘Anthony Foley: Munsterman’.
Made for the first anniversary of his death, the documentary featured interviews with his two sisters, Rosie and Orla Foley, and his friends and teammates. They spoke about his early career in rugby, about how he played a part in making the Munster club the huge, internationally known organisation that it is today.
As I watched well known rugby players – some of who’s faces I surprisingly recognised – speak about Axel and his passion for the game and the club, their passion and pride spilling out with their words, I felt sadness for his passing, but also, selfishly, for myself.
Not even sadness, but shame. Shame that I have grown up in Munster my whole life and was not a part of this wonderful community, this family. Embarrassment, that I didn’t know this man, who had been a part of so many peoples’ lives, so many people I know. As his childhood friend Keith Wood said, “a huge number of people would have felt they knew him and he would have been part of their lives for an awful long time”.
As footage was shown on the screen of the 2006 Heineken Cup final, the team which I learned Axel had captained, I recalled my godmother’s excitement when I was ten years old about going to Cork city to see the homecoming of the team.
Growing up in a house where we were never really into sport or watching matches, I felt disconnected and couldn’t identify with this excitement. I don’t think I would ever have been interested in sports no matter what house I was raised in still, but I do feel foolish that I was so unheeding to the people, Axel included, that have done so much for the place that I call home.
So much raw emotion is seen from these huge guys – Paul O’Connell, Jerry Flannery – as they begin to describe the day of the Munster coach’s death and his funeral. Conor Murray talks about the “sombre” atmosphere around Limerick at the time.
It’s almost impossible not to get emotional hearing his wife, Olive, speak at his funeral promising to raise their two sons to “grow up decent and solid men, full of integrity and honesty, just like their dad”.
Jerry Flannery reflects on the crowds that swarmed the small Killaloe parish church for the funeral, “Every rugby player that I ever looked up to, and they’re all here for Axel”. This, and the acts of respect carried out in honour of Foley at matches following his death hit home how exceptional a man he was.
The footage featured in the documentary of the Mauri team laying down the number 8 jersey at Thomond Park, which was then presented to his sons on the pitch demonstrates the respect held for Axel all over the world.
An interview is shown with Niall O’Donovan, the Munster Team Manager, where he speaks of not having come to terms with Anthony’s death: “We’re here six months after Axel’s death.. and I’m still waiting for him to walk out”. Hearing things like this remind us of the heart breaking reality of losing a loved one and invites us to sympathise with Foley’s family, friends, and everyone that knew and loved him.
Although I feel sadness for everyone that Anthony Foley touched the lives of, I also feel great happiness for them that they were lucky enough to know, to put it simply, a great man.