Following the sudden death of Munster coach Anthony Foley last week in France, Sports Editor Conor Lynott paints a tribute to the Irish rugby legend with a look back over the highlights of his career.
Foley makes his Ireland Debut against England
It was January 21st 1995 and Ireland were looking to make it three wins in a row over what was, at the time, a vastly superior England team preparing for an assault on the World Cup later that year. Lansdowne Road was the venue and the opening match of the Five Nations was the occasion. A 21-year-old Anthony Foley made his debut in an Ireland shirt along a back row which included Mick Galwey, David Corkery and Paddy Johns. Also making their first bows in the green of Ireland that day were Niall Hogan and Paul Burke. However it was Foley who stood from the rest.
While Ireland were never really in touch with the visitors (England ran out 20-8 victors) Foley was already making a name for himself. A quick tap and go in stoppage time allowed him to burst through the England line and go over for Ireland’s only try of the game, adding a glimmer of positivity on a dull day in Dublin.
A Double World Cup Representative
The 1995 World Cup was a momentous occasion for many reasons, and it was also Foley’s first involvement with Ireland at the very height of the game. After defeat to the mighty All-Blacks in their opening Pool C match, Ireland came up against Japan in Bloemfontein needing a win to maintain their chance of advancing past the group stages. That win came about by a margin of 50-28 and Foley came off the bench to make his World Cup debut. He missed out on selection for the 1999 tournament as the province of Munster was largely ignored in the 30 man squad. However, four years later he was back in for the trip to Australia but was unfortunate as injury plagued him in the build-up. Foley only made two starts in the group stages – against Namibia and Australia – and then suffered the disappointment of being dropped for the first time in four years for the quarter-final with France.
A Munster Debut on a Wednesday afternoon
Back in 1995 it’s fair to say that Munster weren’t the biggest draw in the counties around the south of Ireland. Garryowen and Shannon (from who Foley had recently joined Munster) ruled the roost around Limerick. But then came along the Heineken Cup. The new-fangled European competition didn’t quite capture the imagination straight away. Munster’s first match, a home clash against Swansea was even played on a November Wednesday afternoon in order to avoid disrupting the national league. Foley started at flanker in an exceptionally strong team of which every member would at some stage be capped for Ireland. Munster won 17-13 and a European odyssey of which Foley would be a centre point for years to come – had begun.
The first taste of Silverware in the Red of Munster
The 2002/03 Celtic League was just the in it’s second season of the new competition which pitted teams from Ireland, Scotland and Wales against each other. Foley had been on the Munster side which lost 24-20 to Leinster in the final the previous year and were therefore out to set things right. And set things right they did in spectacular fashion. Six wins out of seven games in the pool stages saw them ease into the quarterfinals where they would dish out a 33-3 hammering to Connacht before racking up a 42-10 victory over Ulster in the semi-finals. Foley started at number eight again in the final where Munster overcame Neath 37-17 to lift their first trophy outside Ireland.
Kings of Europe at last
After Jim Williams had left Munster in 2005 Foley was rewarded with the captaincy. Heineken Cup final heartbreak in 2000 and 2002 had ignited a drive and desire matched by few other teams to finally claim Europe’s premier competition. After easing through the group stages with five wins out of six Munster came out on top in their quarter-final clash with Perpignan thanks to a sublime kicking performance from Ronan O’Gara. Then came a semi-final tie against arch rivals Leinster on an electric day in Lansdowne Road. But there was no stopping Munster 10 years ago as they steamrollered their Irish counterparts 30-6 to set up a final against Biarritz. In front of 75,000 people on May 20th at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Foley led his province to the pinnacle of European rugby glory winning 23 – 19. At the post-match press conference the captain shared an emotional moment with Mick Galway as two Munster legends united in joy.
It’s 200 up for Captain Foley
Now 35-years-old Foley’s career was beginning to wind down in 2008. He had passed on the captain’s armband to Paul O’Connell at the start of the season, but not before he reached a landmark of 200 caps. It came in Belfast and a Magner’s League clash with Ulster. The Northern province would run out victors on a scoreline of 19-9 but, after 13 years with the province, Foley had made history by becoming the first Munster player to reach 200 caps. Injuries were beginning to take their toll on the 35-year-old and he would retire at the end of the 2008 season after missing out on selection for the Heineken Cup final win over Toulouse.
Appointment as Munster Head Coach
After a Munster career spanning 13 years and a record caps tally, Foley was brought back into the fold as forwards coach in 2011. He fulfilled that role for three years before finally getting the job he craved when, on July 1st 2014, he officially took up the role as Munster head coach. He led Munster to the Pro12 Final in his first season in charge where they were beaten by Glasgow Warriors before taking them into the current season with the assistance of director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. The news of his sudden death last week will no doubt leave a hole in the hearts of Irish and Munster rugby. But a distinguished legacy and legend as well.
Conor Lynott | Sports Editor