By Denis Hurley
THE sub-editors had a fairly easy time in the wake of Munster’s impressive European Rugby Champions Cup win over Glasgow Warriors last Saturday.
Practically all of the headlines had a variation on theme of Stand Up And Fight – which has been adopted as the Munster battle song – and the team does deserve immense credit for the way in which they channelled their emotions in the wake of coach Anthony Foley’s death to mark his passing with a 38-17 bonus-point victory.
It was the kind of game where Munster were probably going to win well or suffer a defeat as the occasion overcame them. Thankfully, the spirit of Foley was harnessed and it became the kind of game which will live long in the memory.
CJ Stander played at number 8 but wore 24 as the jersey Foley was most associated with was stood down for the day. Everything, apart from Simon Zebo’s red card, went to script and Foley’s script, Tony and Dan, joined the team at the end for a rousing rendition of Stand Up And Fight.
On Sunday, Tyler Bleyendaal, who had produced a man-of-the-match performance at out-half, travelled to Killaloe and presented Foley’s widow, Olive, with his award as a token of what the dearly departed coach had meant to him and the team.
This week, Munster must try to move on and deal properly with life after their head coach, beginning with a trip to Kingspan Stadium to face Ulster. Things had been going relatively well in the Guinness Pro12, with a one-point home loss to Cardiff Blues and the defeat away to Leinster the only blots, while the installation of Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus as director of rugby had allowed Foley to focus on coaching, with the scrum particularly impressive.
That good work will hopefully continue but the loss of the coach will be huge. As tough as last Saturday was – and it’s impossible to quantify just how difficult it must have been to play a rugby game in such a situation – it’s arguable that the game in Belfast will be tougher.
The tidal wave of feeling for Foley created by the packed Thomond Park helped to drive on a set of drivers driven to honour his memory, but there has to be a comedown of sorts after that.
On top of that, Munster’s record at Ravenhill isn’t great – since September 2002 (the sides only played once in the first year of the then-Celtic League, 2001-02, and that was a semi-final at Lansdowne Road) they have only triumphed there on four occasions. January’s 9-7 win was the first since October 2010, and with Ulster topping the table, it was always going to be a tall order.
In his homily at Foley’s funeral mass, Fr Pat Malone, the parish priest of Clarecastle and family friend, laid out the qualities of the former international.
‘In your family statement issued during the week, you said of Anthony, and I quote, “he was a central, go-to figure for the wider Foley and Hogan families”,’ he said.
‘He was that surely and so much more. From what we heard people giving personal witness to, he was also a “go-for” and a “go-with” person. His presence was reassuring, his ability to care, his sheer support, his sense of camaraderie, made all the difference and, to borrow from another famous football anthem: knowing Anthony’s presence, you knew you never walked alone.
‘There is a lovely story, the parable of the pencil. I love it and often use it to encourage young people as they set out on their journey in life. The message to the pencil is to make your mark.
‘Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley made many a mark in his 42 short years of life. Just look around and see; the indelible, warm, affirming marks he left on family, friends, colleagues, sports fans, this local community, rugby wherever it is spoken of – to name but a few. Olive, may the benchmark of his love be the ray of light that dispels the incomprehensible darkness you speak of in the family statement, a darkness “that we must work our way through over the coming, days, weeks and years”.
‘Be assured of our prayers and good wishes for you all on that journey. Today, as we commend Anthony to the care of God, we ask that he may sleep that sleep of peace in God’s presence. I am fairly certain God could do with a top-class number 8.’
That has deprived Munster of a coach, but in death Foley can serve as an inspiration. An international while barely out of his teens, he looked to have stalled in his progress in the latter part of the 1990s but came back stronger than ever.
His story, underpinned by traditional values of hard work and perseverance, can be an example to many more.