Munster head coach Anthony Foley, who held a unique place in the tradition and affections of the Ireland province, has died at the team’s hotel in Paris, plunging Irish rugby into shock and bringing forth a string of tributes.
Foley, described as “the heart and soul” of Munster rugby, was 42 years old and leaves a wife and two children.
No details about the cause of death have been made public.
“It is with deep regret that the Irish Rugby Football Union and Munster Rugby must advise of the passing overnight of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley, at the team hotel in Paris,” read a statement from the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) on Sunday.
Foley’s death prompted the postponement of Munster’s game against Racing 92 in the European Rugby Champions Cup in Paris.
Ireland’s president Michael D. Higgins led the tributes to the former international, saying: “Anthony Foley excelled from a young age and made a huge contribution to the successes of Munster and Ireland, in both his playing and coaching careers.
“As President of Ireland, and as Patron of the IRFU, I offer them and Munster rugby my deepest sympathies.”
Munster fans who had travelled over for the game in Paris gathered outside the Stade Yves-du-Manoir and gave a mournful, muted rendition of The Fields of Athenry, a folk song regularly sung by Irish fans at sporting events.
Foley, a powerful back-row forward nicknamed Axel, will be best remembered for captaining Munster to their first Heineken Cup final triumph in 2006, a victory that ended their quest for success in Europe.
No one knew better than Foley, whose father Brendan was part of the Munster team that famously defeated the All Blacks in 1978, how much that meant to the province, whose team had lost their two previous finals.
“He epitomises what Munster rugby is all about. It’s absolutely shocking. There’s nothing but shock in the air,” former Ireland international Donal Lenihan said.
Capped 62 times for Ireland, Foley made 202 appearances for Munster and was also a skilled player in the Irish sports of Gaelic football and hurling.
While he was surrounded by more illustrious teammates like Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, the Limerick-born Foley had a special relationship with the supporters and his contributions were uniquely cherished.
“He was steeped in Munster rugby,” Lenihan said.
In a book by Alan English about Munster’s 11-year journey to conquer Europe, Foley said he wanted to be remembered as “a stubborn player who wouldn’t give in… Once there’s something to chase, I’ll chase it.”
The Ireland flag will be flown at half mast across local authority offices in the Munster province.