Axel Foley RIP & why I love Munster Rugby

Anthony “Axel” Foley died today aged just 42. He was an excellent rugby player, good enough to play 60 odd times for Ireland in the back row. In a year of celebrity deaths, this is one that’s left me genuinely miserable.

As some of you know, I’m a Munster fan. Which might seem strange. I’m a British bloke from south London. Yes, my maternal grandparents are from Kerry, but my sporting identity was basically English. Spurs, Surrey CCC, England cricket / rugby / football. When I was a boy I followed the Wasps team of Rob Andrew, Nick Popplewell & Dean Ryan. I liked their combination of being from London, playing tough rugby and their slightly earthy reputation. Basically, they weren’t Harlequins. I love rugby, but I’ve never been one of the Barbour brigade.

Wasps and the rest of rugby changed in 1995 and I was looking for a new team. It took a few years but when I was at university I watched a game that changed my life. Munster were playing Toulouse in the supposedly neutral venue of Bordeaux in a Heineken Cup match. Munster smashed the aristocrats of European rugby, with supposedly slow hooker Keith Wood doing international winger Emile Ntamck on the outside. I was giggling with excitement and I was hooked. A 16 year love affair that continues to this sad day.

Back then, Munster had a great story. They were proud outsiders, from the western edge of Europe, having surprising success against better funded French and English teams from richer, more glamorous parts of the world. What appeared to set them apart from their better heeled opponents was a heady mixture. There was the absolute embrace of their outsider status; a sense of community and pride in where they came from; an old fashioned embrace of the dark arts; an understanding you could win by being brutally direct. There’s nothing wrong with 10 man rugby if it’s always wet and windy, which it is all the time on the SW coast of Ireland.

It was this proud outsider trope, a refusal to bend the knee that hooked me in, combined with the fact that they were a very good team, and I had a personal connection in that the Connell and Higgins families that I’m related to are from Kerry, one of the counties of Munster. By discovering Munster rugby, I found something new in myself; a more sophisticated and sympathetic understanding and appreciation of my Irish heritage and history. I found something that willingly drew me into an Irish community where it was my choice to engage and learn as much or as little as I wanted to. I’ll stop now before I disappear up my own behind.

The story of Munster grew with the telling. Near misses at semi final and final stage added to the folklore. What became a highly professional elite sport organisation was somewhat romanticised by rugby media that saw value in promoting the “hard men from the edge of Europe with fanatical fans” narrative. Unlike the other three provinces, Munster had a flash Adidas kit, with Toyota as lead sponsor. We weren’t quite the poor relatives we liked to portray. The underdog tag was psychologically useful, if not quite accurate or objective anymore.

At the heart of the story however, there was a kernel of truth. Men like Axel Foley believed that Munster was different because they were representing something bigger than a sports club. Mick Galwey may have started it, but Foley took on the idea that Munster Rugby was a representative of a community on a global stage. They were playing for the honour of their home, each other and the wider community; which is why they played so hard and well. Foreigners that came in had to buy into this philosophy. We had a few great ones; Jim Williams, Dougie Howlett and others understood, and improved the team. They and their followers were on a journey. We were a true community, with triumphs celebrated vigorously and the rare losses mourned.

The narrative and feeling grew richer with time. A series of nearly moments made me wonder if we’d ever win the big one. The most exciting, highest quality rugby match I’ve ever seen was a loss. Wasps just beating us on a bright sunny day in a semi final that was better than any international I’ve seen. Poor old Strings got battered over the line in injury time in a one on one with a Polynesian prop. Incredible drama kept the story moving on time and time again. Also, Strings would get his redemption.

Axel Foley was the totem of the great Munster team I fell in love with. He took the journey from not good enough, to contenders that couldn’t quite make it. Then the next step. He took over as captain and we reached our Everest. Munster beat Biarritz in Cardiff on a desperately tense game where we deserved to win, but only just did do due to a mixture of what we’re even then Munster clichés. The 5 meter scrum where a smart TV producer showed live pictures of O’Connell Street in Limerick watching the match. The 60 odd thousand Munster fans in the crowd roared. The pack heard the roar, saw the screen and reacted. Or so the story goes. I was there but can’t confirm it did happen like that due to excessive consumption. I hope it did though.

That story wouldn’t be viable if it wasn’t for men like Axel. Deeply rooted in Munster rugby he was a second generation Munster player who embodied the history, passion and community, combined with ferocious sporting excellence that made Munster the team it was, and that made the story of Munster at least mostly believable. I have to admit, he wasn’t my favourite player. As a scrum half I loved Strings’s pass, I thought David Wallace was a quality flanker, Hendo was a great bosh merchant who with the Lions had shown he was far more and Quinnie & Leamy were very good players with a bit of edge. But Axel was the core.

He was the physical representation of what was an amusing irony. For a team that played brutally direct, effective rugby, Munster was about something romantic. The connection between the team, and a wider community that they represented seemed almost magical. For the first time in my life I understood the passion of the truly committed sports fan, and for us it was better because men like Axel seemed to buy into a narrative that we were all part of. Normally in sport there’s lip service to the fans, but for that Munster side, they seemed to share the belief that they played for us.

This experience has made my life so much richer, and it’s why I cried today watching this
RIP Axel