Marcus Horan looks to make a break for Shannon with the late Anthony Foley in close pursuit
MARCUS Horan this week recalled the road trips he shared with the late Anthony Foley over two decades.
There were the journeys home from school at St Munchin's College, the trips into Shannon games, the winding road to Cork for Munster training and then the treks to Dublin for Ireland training camp.
Horan and Foley's rugby careers followed a remarkably similar path, through school, club, province and at international level.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the death of his great friend Anthony 'Axel' Foley, Horan shared some of his fondest memories of a rugby life shared.
You knew Anthony from St Munchin's College?
Marcus Horan: "Axel would have been, the odd time, hitching home from St Munchin's and my dad would have picked him up. We lived in Clonlara and he would have dropped him on to Killaloe from there.
“I was a few years younger and would have been in the car. I would be in awe of Axel.
“Axel was in sixth year playing Schools Senior Cup. He was the main man in the school to be honest with you with regard to rugby.
"When I was in first year, the big thing was the senior team trying to win the Senior Cup.
"They lost to Pres' in the final. It was one thing I will always remember with Axel. One of the biggest regrets he always had was not winning that Cup. For a man that achieved so much, he would still bring it up pretty often. It was obviously something that stuck with him.”
How much of an influence did he have on you at Shannon?
MH: "I broke into the Shannon team when I was 18. Axel's Dad Brendan would pick me up to bring me to the games. Brendan and Axel would be sitting in the front of the car and my memory of getting into the car with them was - I think they had a Volvo - the two seats were back to the last and when I got in I could barely get my feet in the well at the back.
“I had to almost lie across the back seat to get comfortable, so that was hilarious. But I couldn't believe where I was, being in a car with the two Foleys. It was a bit of whirlwind for me when I left school and joined Shannon.”
How did you find settling into a star-studded AIL squad like Shannon's?
MH: "Axel was well established with Munster at that stage and was already capped by Ireland. He was the main man at Shannon
"To be fair, he always looked out for me with Shannon. There was some real tough characters in the squad at that stage and a few who threw it around in training.
“Axel was well aware of that and even though I was a bit naive I would have stepped up in the queue to tackle one of them, Axel would nudge me out of the way because he knew I would get hurt, maybe.
"He was wise beyond his years and picked up a lot of that from the likes of Gaillimh (Mick Galwey) as well. Gaillimh had looked after him so he was maybe doing the same with me.
"I was part of the last of the four-in-a-row All-Ireland League winning teams and would have won two or three more AILs after that.”
Yourself and Anthony spent a good deal of time together in cars over the years?
MH: "In my Shannon days Axel and his Dad picked me up and they would drop us to the bus to go to Dublin. That continued then when we played with Munster. We used to travel together, myself, himself, Colm McMahon and John Langford, four in a car.
"When we travelled up to Ireland camp, I would have travelled with Axel too. That was a lot of down time with the man. He may not have been a man of many words, but he was great company.
“For me, I remember my first day going up the road to Irish training, having that bit of stability and comfort of Axel being there. He knew I would have been nervous .”
How do you think he viewed the rugby media?
MH: "With Axel, I think there was a shyness there. He was very much a rugby man. There is a story about him doing a coaching course with the IRFU, I think it was Level 5.
“One of the modules in it was dealing with the press and he even had resistance towards that, even though it was part of his qualification in getting his coaching badge was doing this module on the media.
“He was a guy who just wanted to be outside with his boots on, whether it was playing at the time as a player or coaching. That was all he wanted to do.
"The media side of it was not something that came with the game he knew as a kid. It was something that came later with the territory. I think it was a shyness as well. He was great company. He understand the need for the press involvement and the curiosity over what made the group tick. The irony was you had someone like Rassie coming in who was going to take that pressure off him that year and he did it so well.
"I interviewed Axel a few times over the years with TG4 and I definitely saw a difference in him then once Rassie Erasmus arrived last season because he didn't have that pressure on him any more. He could just go out and coach which was all he wanted to do and that was great to see.
“There was a spring in his step and he was enjoying doing what he was doing. I think Munster got it right there getting someone like Rassie there.”
People always refer to him having a great rugby brain?
MH: "There could have been lots of things going on in games where fellas are losing their heads, including myself, I was known for it in the day with Shannon, and he had a tough time with the likes of myself in the pack.
“Quinny (Alan Quinlan) on one side of him and Eddie Halvey on the other, maybe giving out to each other or giving out to the referee or whatever, the calmness Axel used to show was incredible.
“He never put anyone down. If they had an opinion, whether it was right or wrong, he took it on board.
"You could have a situation in a game at Thomond Park where four or five quality players are roaring at each other, giving out to one another, and you would wonder how are we going to win anything if we are all fighting with each other.
“But in the next play Axel would pick from the base of the scrum and get go forward and guys just followed him. He was a leader, guys followed him.”
Was Axel playing the day you won your first cap for Ireland?
MH: "I won my first Ireland cap against the USA in June 2000 over in Manchester. Axel wasn't playing, he was bringing on water bottles during the game though to the players. Himself, John Hayes and Mick Galwey were the water boys, would you believe!
“The lads had just played Argentina in a Test match before that. I came on at tighthead against the USA and it was a really hot day. We put 50 or 60 points on them.It was actually great craic because the boys were coming on with the water bottles, slagging us. He was slagging me about playing at tighthead and saying Hayes was going to take my place at tighthead. They were really enjoying it, the pressure was off them.
"The stand out time for me playing with Axel, for Ireland was at the 2003 World Cup. I just thought he was immense down there in Australia and it was a huge disappointment he was dropped for the Australian game and the French game. We were all really gutted for him. He was really, really disappointed.”
Anthony often used the 'better when we're bitter' mantra going into games?
MH: "Anthony was always very respectful of the opposition. Many times we played a team twice in a season and we may have beaten them at Thomond Park and he was always the first guy to say we have to go over there to play them, so go shake their hand and get on with it.
“While you may be bitter about opposition, you don't want to give them ammunition either. He was very shrewd in using things in the right way.
“"He would pick up on little things and use them. Sometimes it might be the case of not telling everyone, but feeding the information to the right guy that might use it themselves in a meeting and he got to know the dynamic of a lot of us really, really well and what made us a lot of tick. That is what made him a good captain too for a guy who didn't say much.”
Both yourself at Shannon and Anthony at Munster went through a difficult period around the same time as head coaches?
MH: "To be honest with you there was a bit of conflict there at times. There were times where I got phone calls the night before an AIL game with Shannon to play one of the Munster players even though I had a team picked. That was tough.
"But to be honest we both kinda went through a difficult time together. He was with Munster and I was with Shannon. Every Monday morning I would be in UL with my other job with Rugby Players Ireland and he would pop over to me and just say, 'heard about the weekend, keep the head up'.
“This was coming from a guy who was probably struggling as well. He was well aware of what I was going through. It just reminded me of my early days coming in as a player, he was doing the same as a coach, making sure there was empathy there for what I was going through 'cos he was going through the same thing.”
"There was a genuine interest for me, but obviously for the club as well that we do well. I will never forget that.
“It was probably the last thing on his mind being around another negative thing where Shannon were not going well, but he took the time to come over and check in with me. That was a regular thing. It put me at ease. He was well aware of what I was going through. It helped me get through a couple of difficult weeks.”
How do you look upon his tenure as Munster head coach?
MH: "My own opinion on it is Axel did everything he could and always put the players and Munster first. The timing of it and results didn't go their way. I think there was a lot of unfair criticism as well.
"My own opinion with Irish coaches is that they are always going to get a lot more flak maybe than an overseas coach coming in.
“I would have loved to have seen Axel do what he does best and I think there were a lot of things hampering him with regards to losing players, but he also lost coaches as well, including Mick O'Driscoll and Brian Walsh. The stability wasn't there.
"You would love to see where it could have gone with him, having someone like Rassie Erasmus around. When I talk to Felix (Jones) and Jerry (Flannery) and the amount they have learned from Jacques and Rassie has been incredible. Axel was very much like that. Axel embraced them coming here. He was very open to learning from other people.”
The outpouring of grief when Anthony died showed how popular he was?
MH: "It was such a shock for everyone when he died. There is always been a lot of love around for Munster and what the team represented. When you think of Munster, you think of someone like Axel and that is what got to so many, what he meant to so many. The family side of it too, Olive and her two boys, it is just so tragic. You would want the boys growing up knowing how much respect there was there for him.
"Hopefully over time they will see that and it's hugely important. This time of the year is really tough for them with the anniversary coming around. It will definitely be tough. That is when we, the Munster family, really think of the Foley family.”