By James Beringer
On May 20 2006, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium played host to the Heineken Cup final, the pinnacle of European club rugby. The two teams, Munster and Biarritz, battled it out for one of rugby’s biggest prizes. When Sireli Bobo scored a highly controversial try within two minutes for Biarritz, a familiar yet agonizing pattern looked set to continue for the Munster supporters. Beaten finalists in 2000 and 2002, semi finalists in 2001, 2003 and 2004, they had tasted the bitterness of European defeat so often, that this latest twist of fate seemed only a cruel reminder of the status quo when it came to Munster and the Heineken Cup. Munster’s captain, a man who had played in every single one of those past campaigns, decided that his team would not go down without a fight, that they would throw everything they had at Biarritz. In some respects, rugby can be a simple game, if you keep enough pressure on your opponents they will eventually crack. That is exactly what Munster did, and it is the reason why their name sits on the trophy. Their captain, who finally got to lift the Heineken Cup for his province that day, was Anthony Foley.
It is fitting, that this tribute for Foley should begin with his finest moment, the point in time where he wrote himself into rugby’s history books. Foley, Munster and the Heineken Cup are so interconnected that it would be almost impossible not to. After all, it is where it all began way back in 1995 against Swansea, and where it so tragically ended at the terribly young age of 42, just hours before he was due to coach his one and only team in a match against French side Racing 92.
It was this commitment to his home province that made Foley stand out. It was a link that had been present long before his debut for Munster in 1995. Foley had captained his school to the Munster Junior Cup in 1989, and his father, Brendan Foley, had played for the Province in the 1970s, forming part of the legendary Munster team that had beaten the All Blacks in 1978. In 1992, he captained the Irish Schools team. Upon leaving school he joined local rugby club Shannon RFC, with whom he won the All Ireland League 4 times in a row between 1994 and 1998. In 1995, he earned his first cap for Ireland, coming on as a substitute against England and scoring a try from a quick penalty. That try somewhat epitomized Foley. He was hardly a particularly flashy player in his position, stating once that rugby was basically a “street fight with a ball”, but he had an excellent rugby brain, coupled with fantastic decision making skills under pressure. Foley would play 62 times for Ireland.
The era during which Foley rose to prominence in Irish Rugby had been a difficult one for the Irish national team. Last place finishes in the Five Nations championship were commonplace. The nadir was the 1999 Rugby World Cup, which saw Ireland eliminated at the group stage. Munster players like Foley and his close friend Keith Wood, were instrumental in transitioning Irish rugby into the professional era, turning them from 5 Nations also-rans into serial contenders for the title. If the 1999 World Cup was the nadir of Foley’s international career, the 2004 Six Nations match against England was surely one of the highlights. The world champions humbled at home, a real statement that the Irish team could take the game to anybody, and Foley was at the heart of it. This strong crop of Irish players resulted in success at club level as well, which brings us back to the 2006 Heineken Cup. Declan Kidney, the head coach of Munster at the time, said that Foley was the only player in the team who could have possibly lifted that trophy that evening. He was the link, the totem of the past throughout Munster’s history of European Rugby, and it seemed only natural for him to be the focal point of Munster’s greatest achievement in Cardiff.
Foley would go on to retire only a year later, after playing 202 times for Munster, scoring 39 tries (at that time a record). This included all but one of Munster’s 78 first Heineken Cup games, a testament to his consistency. After retirement he returned to Munster in 2011 as their forwards coach. In 2014 he became Munster’s head coach.
The news of his passing came as a shock to many. The Munster fans outside Racing 92’s Paris stadium gathered to pay their respects, a touching rendition of ‘Fields of Athenry’ was sung, as they remembered arguably one of their most beloved players. Foley will be remembered primarily as the man who took Munster to the top of Europe. His passion, his relentless drive, and his stubborn refusal to ever give in were qualities that he transferred to Munster Rugby Club as a whole. Yet at the same time, he should also be remembered as a fantastic ambassador for Irish rugby, and as an embodiment of all the attributes of the game.
Photographs: commons.wikimedia, flickr