By any stretch of the imagination, Anthony Foley was born to lead. And in a captaincy of understated vocal resolve, similar to that of Declan Kidney and Alan Gaffney’s coaching methods, his skippering approach was critical to the Munster success story.
Consider the virtues of Mick Galwey and Jim Williams before him, and Paul O’Connell as his provincial successor. None are known for on-field bollickings; few in the union game are. But what’s said in the dressing room is of course an altogether different matter.
As a captain you’ve got to know when to speak and, critically, when not to. The time to cut the natter is critical, especially in the hours or minutes before a big match.
Foley was a master in the latter respect and his timing, both in this and so many other areas of the game, was pitch perfect.
In his eponymous page-turning memoir, Foley’s recollection of the minutiae could easily be solely attributed to the researching skills of his ghost writer Peter O’Reilly.
But, if you’ve played the game at any level, and if you’ve captained a team, then one appreciates those moments which you both revel in and regret at a later stage.
The feelings catalysed by victory or defeat, seeing the whites in certain opponent’s eyes, straining every muscle to cross the whitewash and the subsequent post-match blow-outs, all have a special place in a player’s memory bank.
And Foley has a Slievenamon-high stack of memories to share, and does so in an occasionally breezy, detailed when so required yet always passionate and entertaining manner.
He is steeped in rugby tradition, mainly due to his father Brendan, one of the giants of Shannon and Munster Rugby, who played in Thomond Park against the All Blacks that great day 30 years ago.
The ties binding father and son couldn’t be spelled out any clearer than they are here and this proves one of this book’s more interesting subtexts.
The highs and lows of club life with Shannon and, in particular, the haphazard way the IRFU approached the transition to professionalism in its early days, are the most compelling elements of the book.
While his magnificent Munster career is better known to supporters, that sense of regret over his time in the green of Ireland (despite winning 62 caps) leaps from the book like a lofted lock at lineout time. That he missed out on a Lions tour clearly and justly rankles also.
Yet this is an overwhelmingly triumphant and enthusiastic tome – love of club, province, country and family rarely absent from any of its 240-plus pages.
There’s a lot to cover in a career as extensive as Foley’s, and ‘Axel: A Memoir’ ought to tick most rugby fan’s book purchasing boxes. It should fill many a festive stocking the way water filled Foley’s boots on a dirty day on the back pitch at Lansdowne Road.
By the way, Des Daly’s seven page statistical record of Foley’s career at the end of the book serves to underline what a remarkable figure of talent and endurance this particular player was.
Daly’s service to rugby is similar in many ways to the great Raymond Smith of GAA writing lore and if he’s not received a record for services to sport yet, then someone should make an official fuss about him very soon.
‘Axel: A Memoir’, published by Hachette Books Ireland, is available in local bookstores.