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Anthony Foley death: Memories of amazing man will never fade away

By David Kelly

We only came to Paris, this beautiful city of light and sound and love and gaiety, to watch a game of rugby. Instead, we leave it this morning bathed in tears, and the sun, somehow defiantly, is still casting its bright light upon all it surveys.

But in so many hearts, there is but darkness.

"He was in a Shannon jersey before he could even walk," said the veteran radio broadcaster Len Dineen, a former player from Anthony's equally renowned father Brendan's era, recalling the time when the man would bring the boy into the dressing-room.

This week, that father will have to bury his son.

Anthony Foley was born into rugby passion, he left this earth still being consumed by it - possibly to his dying breath.

We shall never know. All we know is the magic and the joy and memories he bequeathed in such a criminally curtailed life.

"We were just saying, we felt that we were living a nightmare," said Jane Flannery, mother of Jerry, Foley's fellow coach and former colleague in the 2006 Heineken Cup-winning side.

"We felt that we would somehow wake up and it wouldn't be true. Unfortunately, it is true. It is very hard to absorb the reality of it.

"He died in the line of duty. He was waiting for a match to be played today.

"We had associations going back to Shannon - Jerry played there with Munchins, Shannon and Munster. He played in that 2006 team. We're a part of his history, all the memories he created.

"The whole history of his family... he was Munster to the core."

After the 202 appearances for Munster and the 62 caps for Ireland, the triumph of captaining the Heineken Cup winners in 2006, ending an Odyssean quest for that Holy Grail, Foley was latterly part of the coaching set-up with Munster.

Having been successful with the Ireland A side and Munster A, then on secondment briefly to the national side for a time, he had been head coach for the past two seasons with Munster.

They had not been successful in Europe, an arena where Foley and those he had led had determined would be the benchmark for how Munster would be viewed at home and abroad.

A new South African coaching team had been brought in above his head but, rather than wallow in the initial disappointment, Foley had, to those who knew him best, absorbed the disappointment and ensured he would be determined to do his best in the new role.

It had seemed a weight had been lifted; had he not stayed at Munster, it is questionable whether he might have had any other opportunities in rugby.

This was the life he wanted. This was his life. It was thought nothing could take it away from him now.

Still, he was in good spirits on the flight over on Friday evening, a scheduled Aer Lingus plane which also carried some supporters and media.

"I saw him at the baggage carousel," said Dineen. "I went over and wished him luck. He nodded at me, he smiled and that was it. That was the last time I spoke to him."

Foley was an indomitable spirit on the field and, for those outside his circle, somewhat impenetrable off it. He didn't take prisoners on the field or suffer fools off it. But his loyalty was inextricably bound up with his character. Once you were a proven, faithful friend, or forged mutual bonds of trust on the field in times of strife, that was a bond that would last for all time.

Or so, until tragedy so cruelly cast its dark cloud, we had presumed.

"I am sitting in Paris trying to distil the horror and the shock, simply being stunned at the news of Anthony Foley's passing," said Liam Toland, a former colleague and combatant.

"A true friend. Our paths would cross every few months or even every few years, but our friendship would pick up straight away from way back when we started in 1988, when I was playing for St Clement's against the great Anthony Foley, the number eight for St Munchins, on the muddy back pitch in Corbally.

"That is where the relationship started - and to think I am here in Paris and it is finished, 27 years later. I can't help but think of his wife, Olive, and his family, Brendan and his three sisters, the community of Killaloe, Shannon, the Mid-West, Munster and beyond. We're all at a loss in losing such a huge friend."

If the sadness among the sporting community and the Irish public is seismic, that is nothing to the grief stunning those within his intimate circle.

His passing leaves a vacuum. We can't begin to comprehend the chasm that exists now for those who knew the man behind the icon.

"Anthony was a guy who had a very hard shell," Dineen said. "But once you pierced that shell, you had a friend for life. People called him grumpy, this that and the other. He was just a deep thinker on the game.

"His sister Rose and his wife Olive used to slag him about his persona, but he loved a joke."

Born into rugby, it was the theatre in which Anthony played his final act, too.

Ireland has lost; a devastated family suffers so much more.

But as we fight back the tears and make contact with those at home closest to us in these grimmest of moments, the sun still shines. Defiantly.

Some lights are just determined not to fade away.

Belfast Telegraph

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