Anthony Foley five years on: ‘We have good days and bad days. But we miss him all the time’

Anthony Foley five years on: ‘We have good days and bad days. But we miss him all the time’

There’s still not a day that they don’t feel his absence — and barely one when they can’t still feel his presence.

On Wednesday his nephew, Rosie’s lad, Oisín Minogue, turned 16. Anthony was at his 11th birthday.

“He would come back from anywhere for a (family) birthday,” smiles Rosie. “He just wouldn’t miss them.”

That evening he’d taken Oisín and his own young fella Tony to hurling training in their local club Smith O’Briens and brought them back to Rosie’s again afterwards for the cake. Sometime then after the candles had been blown out, he bade his sister farewell, she wished him best of luck with the match in Paris at the weekend and mentioned sure they’d see each other the following week. Only they didn’t.

“That was the last time I saw Anthony alive,” she says. The other day Oisín blew out those extra five candles without his uncle being there to enjoy another slice of cake.

There’s so much else Anthony’s missing out on, and so much he’d be glad that they are not. The game of his life continues to be theirs: His dad’s, his sister’s, his children’s, his niece’s and nephews’.

When I catch Rosie to take an afternoon Zoom call, she’s in a car as she’s invariably racing from one rugby activity to another. She’s just coming from Anthony’s old stomping ground of Coonagh — Shannon RFC’s grounds — which hosted a first-year Munster branch boys’ blitz featuring an amalgamated side of Scarriff Community College and St Anne’s, Killaloe where she teaches PE and geography.

In the evening she has a meeting concerning her local club of Ballina-Killaloe where she is now president, having succeeded her father Brendan, now junior vice-president of the Munster branch and due to become its president in three years’ time.

“In our house there’s a real strong sense to give back because people once gave the sport to you,” she says with her usual zeal and radiance. “If someone hadn’t taken Dad into St Mary’s club in Limerick when he was 11 or 12, he would never have touched a rugby ball at all, but some volunteer did.”

The previous day there was a girls’ schools blitz in the morning, again put on by Ray Gadsden, the Munster development officer, before it was off to watch St Munchin’s away to Rockwell. The birthday boy Oisín lined out alongside his cousin and TYO classmate Tony in a Munster Senior Cup game, while at the same time, back in Munchin’s, her other boy, Brendan — named after his grandad, naturally — lined out alongside his cousin and second-year classmate Dan against Rockwell in an U15 McCarthy Cup match. If they had the power of bilocation they’d have seen them all play; instead, Brendan Senior and Anthony’s wife, Olive, stayed in Limerick to watch the U15 game while Rosie went up the road to Rockwell.

There’s not a member of the new generation that hasn’t caught the rugby fever. Last Sunday, Rosie’s and Pat’s 11-year-old daughter, Síofra, played the first couple of rugby games of her life, in Garryowen. It was quite the baptism of fire — as well as playing the home club, her Ballina-Killaloe side went up against Shannon, cheered on by Anthony’s one-time Robin, Marcus Horan, and Rachel Tucker, Rosie’s old Irish teammate, who each had daughters of their own. Síofra loved it. No better place to be, no better people to be around.

Of course, she’s her grandad’s daughter, her late uncle’s niece, and as much as anything, her mother’s daughter. Rosie Foley’s passion for her sport, club, province and country remains as strong as ever, as evident when you ask her about the fortunes of the national women’s team.

Rosie Foley after she’d swam the English Channel in 2014. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

The last time I sat down with her was in 2014, just after she’d swam the English Channel on the eve of the Ireland women’s team arriving in France for a World Cup in which they’d beat the All Blacks and reach the semi-final. At the time she felt as if they were powering her on, just as she’d like to think her feat spurred them on. It was like Irish women’s rugby was on the crest of a wave. But the tide has since turned. Now it’s as if it’s swimming against a ferocious current.

“I’ve been on the IRFU women’s committee for a few years and have heard directly the likes of Anthony Eddy (director of women’s rugby) talk about their ambitions and how they’re working hard. But I haven’t seen it on the ground! It’s like in school when you say to the kids: ‘I’ve told you more than once now’ and they’ll say: ‘Oh I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ and you say: ‘Look, I’m no longer interested in your words, I want to see the actions.’

“Hand on heart, I’m heartbroken, watching the girls, a good few who I know. Dorothy Wall’s granny and mum were at the game in Rockwell the other day. The likes of Dorothy, Claire Molloy, Ciara Griffin, all of them — they really don’t deserve what they’re getting.

“I really thought we’d be much further down the line. In 2014 we were in such a great place. But since then we’ve slipped and slipped until we’re rock bottom — this has to be rock bottom. I had the dream that we’d be treated as professionally as the French women, or New Zealand or England, but the girls aren’t. We’re being left behind. It’s very upsetting that we can’t do more to help them but any help is nearly fobbed off.

“I know for example that sponsorship isn’t a major issue. The one good thing has been the increased television and media interest in the women’s game. So with that extra profile there are companies out there who’d be quite happy if you said: ‘We’re putting these 30 girls aside, they’re going to be professional for the next two years, we’re to pay them €30,000 a year so they don’t have to work.’ That can be done. I don’t understand why it can’t be done.

“Some of it might be the personalities involved not seeing eye to eye, but in all walks of life people compromise, they find common ground for the greater good. I believe there are some more women going to be coming onto the IRFU committee and I really hope they’re given the opportunity to make changes and that it’s not just going to be all talk and no action. Now is the time to put the pressure on and kick on and show some strong leadership as the women’s soccer team recently have. Because I just know in my heart and soul we can be so much better.”

Rosie and Anthony Foley wearing the new Munster Rugby jerseys in 2005. Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22

It might have been a quick five years to the rest of us but Rosie can’t say it’s been the same for her and her family. The years weigh and drag so much heavier when you lose someone like Anthony.

We still have good days and bad days. You hope sometimes that you could snap out of it. You just learn to go on with it. But we miss him all the time.”

It’s especially felt when the lads are playing for Munchin’s. How they’d love if he could see them. How he’d love what he’d see. How they’re their own men. How they’re like him. The thought of it makes Rosie beam and sometimes it makes her bite her lip.

“We see Anthony in them all the time. The way Dan might turn and look at you. Or watching Tony steal a lineout ball; he (Anthony) would be very proud of that. Or my own Brendie playing at No. 8 and doing a flick I saw Anthony do when he was a schoolboy because he’d watched Zinzan Brooke do it. Some of the stuff they’d do, you’d think: How can they do that when they’d never have seen Anthony play? They might have seen the odd old DVD or YouTube clip yet there’d still be things they’d do that they couldn’t have seen or known.”

She pauses, then bursts into laughter. “None of them are as grumpy as him though!”

There’s a plausible explanation as to why they share some of the skills and tics of Anthony the player. They’re students of the game, just like he was. Keith Wood has talked about calling up to the Foleys’ house in Killaloe on glorious summer days only to find the curtains closed as inside a young Axel and his father Brendan was watching — studying — an old video cassette of the Welsh team of the 1970s.

“With this constant repetition,” Woods would write in the foreword of Foley’s own book, “Anthony began to understand the game intimately.”

These days there are no curtains drawn, no old VHS recorders; their iPhones and laptops provide enough light of their own to watch their clips. But granddad Brendan is still there, highlighting certain passages of play, prompting the odd reflection, volunteering his own insight.

“The other day against Rockwell, my younger lad Brendie was playing on the wing and he said afterwards: ‘God, I’m not mad

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