The entire rugby world was thrown into shock on Sunday (16 October) when the awful news filtered through that Irish rugby great and Munster head coach Anthony Foley had passed away suddenly aged 42 at a hotel in Paris, where his team were staying ahead of their European Champions Cup Pool 1 opener against Racing 92. That match was understandably postponed and tributes instantly began flooding in for a man affectionately known as 'Axel', in reference to Eddie Murphy's character in the Beverly Hills Cop film franchise.
Perhaps the most heartfelt and emotional of those homages came outside Racing's Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir, where the travelling Munster contingent grouped together to produce a spine-tingling rendition of the Fields of Athenry. A spontaneous makeshift shrine also quickly adorned the gates of Thomond Park in Limerick, where flags are flying at half-mast and a book of condolence was opened earlier this morning.
Foley, who was born in Limerick but grew up in Killaloe and later attended St Munchin's College, was a colossal figure in Munster folklore, making 201 total appearances between 1995-2008 and captaining the province as they finally ended their long, agonising wait for European success with an exciting 23-19 Heineken Cup final win over Biarritz in 2006.
After hanging up his boots two years later, he joined the backroom staff as technical adviser and assistant for defence before also overseeing the Under 20s and British and Irish Cup squad. He later took charge of the forwards and went on to replace New Zealander Rob Penney as head coach during the summer of 2014 after CEO Garrett Fitzgerald described him as the "outstanding candidate" for the job.
Like father Brendan, who was part of the team that beat New Zealand on their 1978 tour of Britain and Ireland, Foley represented his country with 62 senior caps spread over a decade from 1995. Three of those outings came as a skipper and the period encompassed two World Cups before ending after the 2005 Six Nations tournament. He later made a brief return to the international setup as forwards coach in 2012.
Foley is also an iconic figure at top amateur outfit Shannon RFC, where he played for 15 years and made 88 All Ireland appearances. Described as a "quintessential club legend", he led the team in 1997-98 and played in all 48 matches during a historically dominant run of four consecutive titles between 1995-98. He won five in total.
" I lost one of my dearest friends today at 42 years of age," said Shannon president Noel Healy. "I'm still trying to come to terms with it. My deepest sympathies to his wife Olive and their two boys, and his family and friends. "
In a statement, Fitzgerald said: "We are shocked and deeply saddened by today's news and the sudden passing of a Munster Rugby great, our head coach, former player, colleague and friend Anthony Foley. Our immediate thoughts are with Axel's family, his wife Olive and his two sons Tony and Dan, father Brendan who is here in Paris with us, mother Sheila, sisters Orla and Rosie and the extended Foley family.
"Anthony was the embodiment of Munster Rugby and dedicated his life to the game he loved. From St Munchin's to Shannon, Munster and then Ireland, Anthony was a true rugby great. Widely known for his extensive knowledge of the game and rugby brain, Axel brought so much to the province as a player and then a coach.
"A very popular figure off the field, he was an incredibly likeable character with a great sense of humour and he lived life to the full. Always maintaining his strong family connections to his native Killaloe in Clare, Axel was hugely proud of his community and where he came from.
"My earliest memory of Axel is when he was playing number 8 for St Munchin's in his teens and the hunger and passion he showed even then was evident to all. Never a man to back down from a challenge, Anthony's determination on the field was mirrored by his actions off it, always honest in everything he did. His legacy will live on in the next generation and beyond. Anthony will be sorely missed and the thoughts from everyone in the game are with his family at this time."
Foley's stature was also reflected in a tribute from current Irish president Michael D Higgins, who added: "It is with great sadness that I heard of the sudden death of Anthony Foley, the Munster rugby team's head coach and one of the great figures of Irish sport in the modern era.
"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. Recognised as a great leader both on and off the pitch, he captained the Heineken Cup-winning Munster team and represented his country at all levels, including playing 62 times for the senior team, and as captain on three occasions.
"He was regarded with great respect and deep affection not just among the Munster rugby fans but by all those interested in Irish sports and those with whom they interacted abroad. While news of his death will be received with shock by all those in the rugby and sports world, it is of course first and foremost a great tragedy for his family and close friends. As President of Ireland, and as Patron of the IRFU, I offer them and Munster rugby my deepest sympathies."