The men of Irish rugby have taken countless number of hits over they years, but none as painful as the death of Munster and Irish legend, Anthony Foley.
Foley, who has been at the helm of his native Munster side since 2014, passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning in a hotel in Paris as his men prepared to face Racing 92 on Sunday afternoon. He was 42 years-old.
No one did more to build Munster’s European odyssey from the bottom up than Foley. He played in their first 71 games, and in 86 overall, and withstood heartbreak after heartbreak. From 1996-97 onwards, Foley scored tries in every European campaign for the next decade.
He was there for their very first foray, when beating Swansea at Thomond Park. That result would begin the long proud unbeaten record at their Limerick bearpit which would endure until Leicester won the final pool game of the 2006-07 season – Foley’s only defeat in the competition there.
He was there for the march to the Twickenham final of 2000 when beaten 9-8 by Northampton, and along with the Shannon core which had helped the club win four successive AIL titles from 1995 to 1998 (when he was also an ever-present in those 48 games) they kept coming back.
When Munster lost the 2001 semi-final to Stade Français by a point after a try by John O’Neill was wrongly ruled out, they came again. When they lost the 2002 final after the Hand of Neil Back, they came again. When, a week after being trounced in Perpignan, they needed a miracle against Gloucester in their final pool match of 2002-03, it was Foley who picked up on the English team declaring how much they were looking forward to coming to Thomond Park and seeking to end Munster’s unbeaten European record there.
When beaten by Toulouse by a point in the 2003 semi-finals, they came back again. After their epic semi-final defeat to Wasps at Lansdowne Road in 2004, they came again the next season. And so they did again after Biarritz beat them in the 2004-05 semi-finals in San Sebastien.
In the week of their quarter-final against Perpignan, the squad were united in grief too after attending the funeral of their young team-mate Conrad O’Sullivan. They rolled up their sleeves and won a torrid battle with the French by 19-10.
They were underdogs when facing Leinster in the semi-finals before their army of fans turned Lansdowne Road red, and then finally reached their Holy Grail with Foley, fittingly, lifting the trophy having refused to touch it the day before at the pre-match photo call alongside his Biarritz counterpart, Thomas Lièvremont.
They’ve been down and out, and written off, so many times, but they kept coming back. Even last season, under Foley’s watch, he and they held their nerve in their final two games in Cork and Limerick to record bonus point wins and secure sixth place in the Pro12 and with it qualification for this season’s European Champions Cup. In the end, it was no mean achievement and it is why Munster were in Paris last Sunday.
The seismic loss of Anthony Foley has shaken the rugby world to its core. A giant of a man in both stature and character, Anthony Foley’s legacy will be forever present in the hearts and minds of those who were close to him and those who had the pleasure of watching him throughout his career.