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Foley was loyal and inspiring: Stunned Longwell

by Jonathan Bradley

Published 18/10/2016

Double team: Gary Longwell and Anthony Foley tackle a Romanian while on duty for Ireland
Double team: Gary Longwell and Anthony Foley tackle a Romanian while on duty for Ireland

Former Ulster stars have continued to pay tribute to the late Anthony Foley with Gary Longwell calling the Munster head coach one of the most loyal and competitive men he has ever met.

The 1999 European Cup-winning hero played with Foley at international level and admitted that he is struggling to process the news of his old team-mate's passing in a Parisian hotel room on Sunday.

The 42-year-old had been preparing his side to face Racing 92 in the Champions Cup but died of a suspected heart attack.

"It's just a shock," said Longwell. "He was a larger than life character. Whenever you saw him, as you would throughout the season, he was always in good health and enjoying life.

"To go away for a game and not make it out of the room one day, it's just awful. Beyond belief."

From playing together with Ireland Schools to competing against one another in games between Shannon and Ballymena during the All-Ireland League's heyday, Longwell and Foley's paths had crossed long before they were senior Ireland internationals together and the former lock says the man survived by his wife Olive and sons Tony and Dan had an unparalleled dedication to his team-mates.

"He was desperately loyal," said Longwell. "I wasn't at the 1995 World Cup but there's a story you always heard in the Ireland team.

"The game was in the process of going professional at the time and the boys had gone out for a few drinks. Anthony had left a little bit earlier on his own while the other guys went off to get some fast food.

"The team manager was waiting in the hotel lobby and started to give off to him. 'What's wrong with you?', 'What were you thinking? The only one in the squad to go out'.

"All his team-mates were creeping in behind the manager's back and up the stairs to their rooms while this was going on and Anthony never said a word.

"You couldn't help but have a lot of trust in a guy like that."

Feeling that Foley was always destined for a life in coaching, Longwell says Irish rugby has lost one of its great thinkers.

"He always had a fantastic rugby brain. The fantastic line-out moves, they were him. He was always thinking about rugby passionately. From his first game as a 20-year-old, Declan Kidney and Niall O'Donovan recognised that and utilised him," he said.

"He was a senior player as a young man.

"He was tremendously competitive too; we used to play indoor cricket in the Irish team rooms and he'd never lose.

"I think back to those Munster teams, they always found a way to win and a lot of that was people like Anthony Foley. He knew what to do, when to do it, and how to do it all the time. He was that clever.

"Grinding out those results, Anthony was the brains behind it, making sure they always got that one final chance.

"The teams he played for, all winning teams, and a lot of that was down to Anthony Foley."

Paddy Johns, who like Foley captained Ireland, was alongside him in the back-row the day the then 21-year-old made his Ireland debut and admits he immediately thought he was in the presence of a special player.

On a day to be remembered for little else from an Irish perspective, Foley scored a try and instantly impressed Johns.

"I remember his first cap against England at Lansdowne Road," he said. "I can picture him on that day now.

"I remember thinking this guy was going to go far and his career showed that he did. You think of the Munster teams, the Heineken Cup winners, and he's right there."

In more recent times, Johns and Foley were still together in forward units going against England, now in bi-annual legends fixtures, and the Dungannon man says he will miss his presence in the changing room when the game rolls around again.

"Time moves on and you wouldn't see people as much sometimes but those legends games are a great way to keep up with people and Anthony was always a big part of it," he said. "He was one of those Munster forwards in the changing room, a lot like Peter Clohessy or Mick Galwey, where he'd always be good craic and taking the mick.

"He'll be sadly missed from those and it'll be a tough occasion the next time without him there. It'll be a sad time and hopefully we'll have a wee moment to remember him."

While Longwell is sure that the void in Munster rugby will endure, he says it is the Killaloe native's family who are foremost in his thoughts.

"There's a huge gap now that is so hard to fill," he said. "That enthusiasm for Munster rugby, the bond was so strong.

"I don't know how they can go forward. The boys will be massively motivated I'm sure to succeed and dedicate things to Anthony.

"Hopefully that would be a fitting tribute for him.

"As hard as we feel it up here, and it's even harder down there, it's worse for his poor family. All our thoughts are with them.

"His dad was a big rugby man, his sister played for Ireland, it's a family so immersed in rugby.

"His wife Olive is somebody I got to know on away trips with Anthony and she's a fantastic lady. All my thoughts are with her and their young family."

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