Belfast Telegraph

Thomond Park turned into shrine for Anthony Foley as fans pay their respects

Seasoned Munster fan Anna O'Neill was pushed up to the gates of Thomond Park in a wheelchair to pin a souvenir T-shirt among the hundreds of tributes to Anthony Foley.

"I've never missed a home or away match in all these years. It's very emotional, for me, especially," she said.

Ms O'Neill wore a red beret covered with emblems and badges from her travels as she offered her memento from the province's never-say-die win over Toulouse in 2000.

"I was a Shannon fan. I came from the St Mary's Parish. Rugby is our life. So sad, so sad. Oh my God, is all I can say," Ms O'Neill said.

The blue gates at Thomond quickly became a shrine to Foley in the hours after his death.

Tears welled in the eyes of hardened rugby men, players from the Munster squad stood in quiet reflection and mothers spoke of their empathy for a young family left without a treasured father.

Talk fleetingly turned to what would make a fitting tribute for Foley - a plaque, a stand named in his honour, a statue or allowing his coffin to lie in state inside the stadium.

Pat Ryan, 47, who can hear the roar of the Red Army at his nearby house , said: "Obviously it's up to the family but they should bring him into the stadium."

A regular match-goer, Mr Ryan tried to compose himself as he took in the dozens of flowers, shirts, flags and poems covering the gates.

"It was just the way he played. To me, he left everything on the pitch," he said.

"He had a bit of genius. He was not the quickest but he had the quickest brain. He was the most intelligent player to have come out of Ireland.

"But he was a local. He was Limerick through and through."

Others came to sign a book of condolence in the Shannon Rugby Club, next door to Thomond.

Some made a point of buying tickets for the province's next match, against Glasgow on Saturday.

Nuala Corbett clasped hers in her hand and looked up to the sky as a steady stream of fans took time to reflect on their loss.

"I'll always remember the Heineken Cup, the first, and someone of the players brought his baby out on to the pitch because he'd been sick. He'd just after come out of the hospital," she said.

"It was lovely, a great gesture.

"He was always very quiet and a private person but a gentleman, a beautiful person behind it all. He didn't show it but he was a lovely person."

David Kelly, originally from Clare and Munster fan through and through, drove from Dublin to Limerick to pin a flag on the gates of the stadium.

"It's hard," he said, close to tears.

"He had the heart of a lion. When others were getting the headlines, Anthony was just getting down to it."

Tom Galvin, 53, shared stories of Foley's early rugby days with St Munchin's and the No 8 leading all over the pitch under the watchful eye of his father and coach Brendan.

"He could play anywhere then," he said.

"He took the conversions, penalties, touch kicks. He called the line outs, the scrums."

Mr Galvin pointed to the many crests and shirts on the gates and said Foley encapsulated Munster's heart and soul.

"I suppose he was the heart of the stag. Or Maybe he was the antlers on the stag - the heartbeat of rugby in Shannon and Munster," he said.

"He was probably one of the best ambassadors that you could have in any sport. He had respect on and off the pitch."

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