Flags at half-mast as Ireland mourns rugby legend Foley


Dublin (AFP)

Flags flew at half-mast Monday in the southern Irish province of Munster as books of condolence were opened across Ireland with the country reeling from the sudden death of rugby great Anthony Foley.

Munster head coach Foley, aged just 42, was found dead in his hotel room hours ahead of his side's European Champions Cup clash with French side Racing 92 on Sunday.

Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny was among those to pay tribute to Foley who enjoyed an illustrious career as a player which saw him win 62 Ireland caps as a robust back row forward.

"Anthony was a legendary figure in Munster and Irish rugby. It is tragic to lose such a fantastic man at such a young age," Kenny said.

That warm tribute -- to a man who also captained Munster to the 2006 European Cup title and epitomised Munster’s battle cry 'Stand Up And Fight' -- was typical of the outpouring of grief for the father of two.

One of Foley's fellow former Munster legends Ronan O'Gara -- who ironically is now a coach at Racing 92 -- described himself as 'heartbroken'.

O’Gara, who with Foley won the European Cup and a Celtic League with Munster and a Triple Crown with Ireland in 2004, added "we have lost an incredible man".

- 'Monsieur Munster' -

O'Gara's Racing head coach Laurent Labit paid Foley one of the greatest compliments one could in saying he was to Munster what the sublime fullback Serge Blanco had been in his day to Biarritz.

"It was not just in Munster and Irish rugby that Anthony Foley is respected," said Labit.

"It is a terrible shock. He is respected in France for his performances for Munster and Ireland. He is part of the history of Munster, he is Monsieur Munster, the same as Serge Blanco in Biarritz or Philippe Sella in Agen. It is a tragedy."

Illustrating how deeply Foley had touched the rugby world in his playing days and then afterwards England's 2003 World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward tweeted his condolences.

"Shocked & so sad to hear about death of Anthony Foley. A true legend & a man who had total respect of teammates & opposition," said Woodward.

Within hours of the news breaking at Sunday lunchtime, Thomond Park, Munster’s home stadium in the city of Limerick, had become a virtual shrine.

The gates are covered with scarves, jerseys, flowers and other mementoes as supporters who pride themselves on their public stoicism wept openly.

By late afternoon queues had begun to form at the stadium as people lined up to sign a book of condolence to the man who played 188 times for the province including captaining them on 58 occasions.

In Paris, as Munster supporters made their way to the Stade Yves Du Manoir for the match on Sunday afternoon, news of the tragedy began to filter through.

Many of the hundreds of fans who travelled for the match had shared a flight with the team from Cork to Paris the previous day.

After observing a minute's applause in his memory outside of the stadium, they sang an impromptu, emotional version of the anthem, The Fields of Athenry.

Foley, whose father Brendan played for Ireland and was also on the history-making Munster team that defeated the All Blacks in 1978, is remembered for many things, including his wry sense of humour and humility.

"I always try to remember that praise and a slap on your back is only six inches away from a kick up the arse," he once quipped.