This weekends opening round of European matches saw plenty of action and great results, yet the devastating news from Paris of Anthony Foley's death 2 weeks short of his 43rd birthday has left an indelible dark cloud reminding everyone that rugby is just a game and that our heroes representing our clubs are human, and humanity is always more important than any result on the pitch.
Foley, Axel as he was affectionately known, was a true Munster and Ireland legend, with 202 Munster appearances over 13 years and a 10 year Ireland career earning him 62 caps in the Emerald jersey, including having the honour of captaining the side 3 times. He also won 5 All Ireland championships in his 15 years with his club side, Shannon.
Standing 6 foot 3 and weighing in just under 18 stone, he was an archetypical back rower, strong as an ox combined with a great rugby brain that saw him bulldoze his way over for 39 Munster tries and another 5 for Ireland, yet he was more renowned for his passion and leadership, wearing his heart on his sleeve and seemingly willing to run through brick walls for his teammates, but always keeping an off field approachability that kept him close to the Red Army fanbase.
One of my favourite quotes I've read from Foley was his decription of himself as a player "If I'm going to be remembered, I'd like to be seen as a stubborn player, somebody who wouldn't give in. There were times during my career when I could have called it quits and gone off and done other things, but there was always a goal there, always something to achieve, Once there's something to chase, I'll chase it."
After his playing career, he took up the role of forwards coach at Munster in 2011, keeping the traditional strong pack Munster were known for, despite some average overall performances in the Rob Penney era. He was so well thought of he was used as Irelands forwards coach on a temporary basis when Gert Smal was unavailable.
In 2014, Foley took full control of Munster and over the last 18 months, Munster's on-field performances had noticeably improved, this year at times, they've looked like the Munster that Europe feared! Anthony's passion as a player was being replicated as a coach and had very obviously rubbed off on the players.
His passing as Munster were set to play Racing 92 saw a touching vigil by the Munster fans who had travelled, there's a video of a stirring rendition of Fields of Athenry being sung by the massed fans that I dare you to watch and not shed a tear, this shows that bond the Munster fans had with Anthony Foley, as grown men embrace and cry during the Munster and Irish anthem.
Foley will always be a key name in Munster history. His father played in the famous win over the All Blacks, Anthony was the captain when Munster finally captured their ffirst European title after having lost 2 finals and 3 semi finals.
I remember going to Thormond Park for the 'Miracle Game' against Gloucester. It was the first time I'd seen the Munster Machine in the flesh and as good as they were that day, Foley was a beast, an absolute standout. Attack or defence, he smashed pretty much anything that moved in one of the most dominant back row displays I've seen,which is high praise considering the Gloucester back row included Jake Boer (the Premiership player of the year that year) Andy Hazell, Pete Buxton and Foley's opposite number, Junior Paramore!
42 is no age. Like Jerry Collins and Jonah Lomu, it's a rugby great taken from us too soon and a genuinely upsetting loss that has been felt throughout the rugby community, my Twitter timeline was 90% about Anthony yesterday, people from all 4 corners of the Earth taking the time to Tweet their sadness at his passing, many tributes have been made, memories shared and love passed on, this blog is aimed to do the same, as we at #Rugbyunited pass on our condolences and love to the Foley family, the people from all sections of the Shannon and Munster rugby clubs, and to Irish rugby in general. A true gem has been lost far too soon.