“WHEN the crowd sing the Fields of Athenry at Thomond Park on Saturday it will be heard 12 to 15 miles away. There won't be a dry eye in the stadium, I can tell you that”
Shannon RFC Club President Noel Healy says he owes his three-year playing career with Munster rugby to the late Anthony Foley.
Healy was capped for the first time by Munster at the age of 35. It was Foley who helped keep him in the provincial side, offering him crucial advice on improving his fitness and on diet.
An emotional Noel Healy explained that his first encountered Anthony Foley when Munster’s first Heineken Cup winning captain was a youngster running around his father Brendan’s pub.
Noel Healy, known fondly as Budda, told the Leader: ”I first met Anthony 35 years ago outside in his father's pub. He was a seven-year-old boy then running around the place. Obviously, then when we burst onto the scene at Shannon in the senior team at a young age, our friendship began from there, really.
“We were the best of buddies to be fair. I got my first cap for Munster when I was 35 in 1995 and Anthony played a huge role in that. He was great for me. I wondered how long it would last and I got three great years playing with Munster.
“He was the driving force behind me in getting me to do different training regimes I started because of him, watching the diet too. The routine back then was play the game and have a few pints. He brought a new professionalism to it to be fair. He was so clever on and off the pitch.”
No one was more proud in 1995 when Foley won his first international cap for Ireland against England at Lansdowne Road. But four-time AIL medal winner Healy saw first hand a week before the game just how much Shannon meant to Foley shortly before the game.
“Anthony won his first Irish cap the same year I made my Munster debut. I remember we were going playing an important AIL match with Shannon up in Ballymena just before the international. He was asked to take a break from the AIL game with the Ireland match coming up.
“And he refused point blank. He went on to win the Man of the Match on that day we beat Ballymena up there. We went on to win the League that season. The rest is history. He captained Shannon to win the last of the four-in-a-row which was brilliant.”
Foley’s former team-mates at Shannon and Munster and Ireland have been quick to stress just how impressive his rugby brain was. Five-time Munster Senior Cup winner Healy agrees, and also recounted when the former number eight used his wits to help secure a vital away AIL win against St Mary’s.
“One day when we playing St Mary's up in Dublin in the AIL, there was a dust-up during the game. Trevor Brennan was playing for Mary's.
“After things calmed down, we were awarded a penalty inside our own '22. You would never have thought what Anthony was going to do. It showed the kind of rugby brain he had.
“He knew Trevor Brennan was on the edge. Anthony tapped the ball to himself and ran into the back of Brennan. He turned round and threw a punch. The referee came straight over and gave Brennan a red card. We were behind by five points at that stage and we actually won the match by seven or eight points. We scored two tries with Trevor Brennan off the pitch.
“There is no one around who would picked that ball and thought of doing what he did. That is to show one side of the brain was working.
“In terms of his coaching career Anthony was at his best out on the pitch coaching the forwards. You could see a change in the attitude of the Munster forwards this year because he was hands on.
“He couldn't be hands on with the role he had for the two years prior to this one. He was just directing people doing what he was doing. He was hands on, forward, forwards all day long.
“Myself and Anthony hopped off each other, but we had great respect for each other. He was my golfing partner. No one could ever beat us. A lot of people tried!”
Noel Healy has been struck by the outpouring of grief which has followed news of Anthony Foley’s shock death in Paris in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Healy said: I am President of a great club in Shannon and I am a proud man to be President. We opened the Shannon clubhouse on Sunday at 3pm for people to sign the book of condolences. The response has been unbelievable. The clubhouse has remained open early into the night.
“I got phone calls from the likes of John Langford, Rhys Ellison, Alan Gaffney who are on the way over. The out-pouring of grief has been absolutely phenomenal.
“We lost a legend here in Shannon a few years ago in Colm Tucker. We will do right by Anthony. His memory will always be in this club.
“When the crowd sing the Fields of Athenry at Thomond Park on Saturday before the Munster match with Glasgow it will be heard 12 to 15 miles away.
“There won't be a dry eye in the stadium, I can tell you that, 26,000 inside the ground. There will be another 14,000 people around the stadium. Everyone is going to come to Thomond Park on Saturday to pay their own tribute to Anthony. No one will want to miss it.”