Former Ireland and Munster rugby star, Rosie Foley talks about growing up in a sports-mad house, breaking down barriers in women’s sport and recalls the sudden and tragic loss of her brother Anthony.
The day before we brought Anthony home to Ireland from Paris, we went to the gates of Thomond Park to see the jerseys and the memorabilia that Munster fans from all over the province had brought to pay tribute.
On our return from Paris with Anthony we felt we had to bring him to Thomond Park and Shannon Rugby Club one last time. Growing up, this was our playground. One of Anthony’s best friends, Noel ‘Budda’ Healy, was President of Shannon RFC and we stopped outside where a huge crowd had assembled as ‘Budda’ sang a rendition of ‘The Isle’ – a very poignant moment.
Going past his old school, St Munchin’s College, we saw students on the road with flags, scarves and candles. As we traveled from Limerick, jerseys, flags and candles lit our journey home to Killaloe. We reached Killaloe where the streets were filled with people holding a candlelight vigil.
Would Anthony have hated all of that? Absolutely, every bit of it.
It was a gorgeous show of respect and love for him though, and it brought us, as a family, so much comfort. You can’t but be thankful, at times like that, for where you grew up and the community of which we became a part, both in Killaloe and in rugby.
We grew up in Murroe, Co Limerick in a sports-mad house. When the Olympics were on, we were down by the water pretending to be Mark Spitz in the little stream near the house. Our lives were centred around sport, and we loved it. There was no sense of a divide, or that women didn’t play sport. I grew up knowing women to have no bounds in sport – how it should be.
Someone, somewhere along the way took my father down to St Mary’s Rugby Club, Limerick. That changed the course of his life and helped shape ours. It’s only as I’ve gone through life that I realise how unique that is and how lucky my family were to be a part of the rugby community. It all started with Dad.
Killaloe was where my real love of swimming came from. I remember the week we moved there my parents saying, “You’re going to be living beside the River Shannon, you’ll have to learn how to swim”.
Anthony, my younger sister Orla and myself, went over to Jimmy Whelan’s shop where we could pick out one toy each, and that would be our prize for when we learned how to swim, at the end of the summer. Mine was a rag doll with blonde hair and a yellow dress.
Since we were small, we always wanted to push ourselves to the limit, especially in sports. Even though we were all so competitive, we had to make sure that Anthony won because he would be having a strop if he didn’t, plus we would get into trouble with my mother!
I remember watching an old interview with Gertrude Ederle, who was the first woman to swim across the English Channel and thinking, even at the age of 11, “I’m going to do that someday.” So, I did it; I swam the English Channel in 2014, also completing the first solo togs swim of Lough Derg (38km). Then last September (2019) I swam the Straits of Gibraltar. This time it was in aid of CRY Ireland; they have been incredible to our family. We get regular cardiac check-ups from Dr Ward based at Tallaght Hospital.
CRY supports families out there who have had family members that didn’t wake up as a result of cardiac illness. We want to be able to tell them that we know how they feel and they’re not alone. “We support you too.” CRY provides that support and comfort without ever asking for payment. How do you give back to people who won’t take any money from you? In my case, I take on endurance swims and fundraise.
One thing I know for sure is that we are on the planet for such a small amount of time, so why not give everything a good go. You can’t beat when you get in the zone and have this fantastic feeling of doing something you have had in your mind to do for a long time. One part of the challenge is seeing if your body can do it, another part of it is knowing in your mind that you can do it.
I have a great support system that allows me to do all this. I have an incredibly supportive husband, Pat, and I have three amazing children. They know that “Mammy is a bit mad”, as they put it, but they get what the swimming is about. I want them to know it’s okay to be yourself, and no matter what age you are, to keep following your dreams.
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I wanted to do PE teaching, so I went back to UL to study as a mature student aged 23. On reflection I was very lucky as I trained in the weights room with the other Munster players like Anthony, Wally, Paulie and co. They were always very supportive and happy to give practical help on anything from scrummaging to how to sack in a lineout properly. It’s a sight to behold as you’re lifted or maybe thrown into the air by both Anthony and Paulie while practicing lineouts on the indoor sprint track in the UL arena.
Dave Conway was there as one of the sports officers, he previously had a role as one of the development coaches in Munster Rugby. After about a year at UL, I asked, “Why can’t we have a women’s rugby team here?” I was quite happy to set it up and get the help, sort the jerseys and all the rest. Dave was on board straight away.
The team travelled to DCU for our first competitive match. We had only started the team and DCU were insisting that we play full-contact rugby instead of touch rugby. We beat them by 70 odd points on the day. My dad was on the side-line, Dave Conway was there too.
It was one of those moments I’ll always remember because I was petrified, but I felt at home. It felt like I was always meant to do this.
Our coach, Ian Costello, saw something special in us. “Girls you are going to wear the green jersey”, he said.
There have been huge strides made over the years, and lots of people have changed their mind on women’s rugby, for the good.
Not everyone saw things the way we did. I remember a doctor asked me once down in Shannon RFC “Rosie, are you not afraid that your womb will fall out, and you won’t be able to have children?”
Someone else said, “With those bumps and bruises are you not afraid you’re going to get cancer?” Nonsense questions really but you humour them and move on.
I can only assume there are genes from other generations in me. I remember putting on a green jersey for the first time, taking a deep breath and thinking “Dad has worn this, Anthony has worn this, and now it’s my turn”.
It is the most amazing feeling representing your country for the first time. The only problem is the match was in Spain. Anthony was playing for Ireland in the Six Nations in Italy, and my parents had already booked the tickets to Rome. Unfortunately, there was no Foley family member in the crowd to witness me earn my first international cap.
Anthony and I shared some great moments together. One of those occasions was when we were both playing England on the same day in Twickenham in March 2004. Anthony and a group from the Ireland men’s team came out to watch the first half of our match where we scored two tries. That was special.
We were ushered off to Rugby House after the match because we couldn’t get tickets for the men’s game. I remember getting a sneak look through a gap in the gate to watch Anthony run out on to the pitch to win his 50th cap, that was a massively proud moment for me as his sister, but I was really pissed off at how we were treated. Even now the women don’t have the option to buy a ticket for a home international, like our male counterparts. That badly needs to change.
I remember another great occasion, playing Scotland in Murrayfield and Anthony was playing in the men’s game ahead of us. Philip Doyle, our coach, or ‘Goose’ as he’s known, had a big thing about not being distracted, but Anthony came down anyway to wish me luck. That was incredible. There were moments like that when I stopped to think how lucky I was to represent my country in these amazing stadiums and have my brother perform on the same pitch. It’s out of this world.
My father earned 11 caps for Ireland. Both Anthony (62 caps) and I (39 caps) earned 111 caps between us for Ireland but as my father says we still haven’t passed him out until our children pass 112.
Both Anthony and I captained Munster winning interpros. Anthony went on to lead the team to Celtic Leagues and, the “Holy Grail”, Heineken Cup success in 2006.
I was lucky to play for Ireland. When my playing days were coming to an end, I got the opportunity to do some media work. I was co-commentator with Michael Corcoran on the first Irish Womens match to be broadcast live on RTE radio. That was followed by working alongside Ryle Nugent on the first live televised womens game on RTE when Ireland Women won the Grand Slam by beating Italy 6-3 on St Patrick’s Day in 2013. Later, I was an analyst with RTE sport, TV3, World Rugby and Sky Sports.
While there I got to meet a lot of sports presenters and pundits, gaining quite an insight into the world of sports media, both good and bad. Yes, from time to time, I would call these people out on the treatment they gave my brother and the repercussions it had on both him and his family.
At times it felt like Anthony always wanted the best, and wanted more, and if things didn’t go right, he took it very personally.
There were periods during his time as Munster Head Coach that Anthony found particularly tough. There were a few games around Christmas time in 2015 when we were very concerned for Anthony and how he was coping. I went up to his house and spent an evening when he was going through his post-match review and analysis. I just sat with him. No need for much conversation. I knew he just needed someone there.
I love Limerick, and the way sport is supported in Limerick, but what we started to see from some people back then was quite nasty. There was a thuggish, pass-remarkable feel about the criticism that I didn’t want to be associated with. There wasn’t any amount of money in the world that you could have given to Anthony to put up with what he had to put up with during that time.
Social media criticism, in particular, was out of control. There were four or five months where certain people were pushing the “Sack Foley” agenda, and that was a very tough time for Anthony and for his wife and kids. It was very oppressive.
All the while, nobody is being held accountable for what they post. I understand freedom of expression, but the idea that you can be completely unaccountable is what bothers me most. You would think in this day and age, with all the technology available to us, that we could find a way to prevent people being harmed in that way.
Some of the media reaction concerned me. It started to ramp up about twenty years ago, and we’ve moved further and further towards the British red-top style of laying blame upon blame until somebody cracks. It’s over the top and shows no human regard.
There is no doubt in my mind that Anthony suffered badly from the stress of that situation, and that ultimately, that stress contributed to his death.
At the end of the day, I don’t feel that any of those people would have wanted the outcome of Anthony passing away. As a family, we don’t view it in that way, we know people are human and make mistakes, all is forgiven. We just have to move on.
Life is for living, and we were lucky to have Anthony for as long as we did.
I’ll never forget the day we got the news.
I had been out for a cycle around Broadford and Bodyke with two of my friends Katrina and Janna. We came back to Killaloe, where we met my mother at the bottom of the road. She had my kids, and Anthony’s kids, Tony and Dan. She was taking them all for breakfast in The Coffee Pot in Killaloe. We call it “the French café”, which is ironic considering Anthony was in Paris with Munster at the time.
My husband, Pat, had my son, Oisin, in North Tipperary at soccer training, and I tried ringing to ask if they wanted food. Pat rang me back, and I knew by his voice there was something majorly wrong.
All I could make from what he was saying was “Come meet me by the bridge.” I said, “Why what’s wrong?” and he just repeated to meet him at the bridge.
We met by the bridge, and standing by the car, he said to me, “Anthony didn’t wake up. Your father has just called me from Paris to say Anthony didn’t wake up this morning.”
”I just didn’t believe it. He’s younger than me, there’s no reason he shouldn’t wake up. Why wouldn’t he wake up?
There was no time to get my head around that because we had a problem. Anthony’s boys and my mother are in the French Café in Killaloe, there’s a TV with Sky News on in the corner. We knew how quickly news would spread.
My thoughts turned to getting Mam out of there before someone told her that her only son had died. Her only son, her pride and joy. She adored him. As kids, if we wanted anything from Mam, we would ask Anthony to ask her because she just couldn’t say no to him.
The quickest way to get my mam out of there was to say, “Oisin got concussed playing football,” I don’t know how or why I thought of that, but we left the café and headed for home.
When the car pulled in at home and the engine was turned off, I turned to Mam and I told her Anthony didn’t wake up. It didn’t register for a minute. Disbelief.
Then we rang Dad, so he could talk to Mam. Dad had been in the bedroom to see Anthony where he was still lying in the bed.
Then we went up and told Anthony’s wife, Olive. Olive told the two boys. Thinking back on it it’s strange how news can be processed. Anthony’s son Dan was very young at the time. He couldn’t understand what was going on and his response was, “Where will we get our Munster tickets from now?”
I switched into a role in my head – Organiser. What needed to be done next, and how? Getting Anthony home is what the priority was. We had to make sure that it was done in a way that Anthony would have wanted.
We met Paul O’Connell and Barry Murphy. They were down to the house very quickly after the news broke. They said, “We’re here now so whatever you need; kids minded, whatever it is, we’ll do it.”
I remember thinking that Anthony is all alone in Paris and had a very stong urge to be with him, protect him. But ROG (Ronan O’Gara) and his wife, Jess were living in Paris as he was coaching Racing 92. He was offering to help, and they met us in the airport, Le Bourget, with a wonderful Irish priest Fr. Gavin.
We were told the next day by the Irish ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, and her colleague, Amanda Bane, in France that Anthony would be coming home, but his remains would be flying into Dublin. I said there is absolutely no way that my brother is flying back to Dublin, no disrespect to anyone in Leinster. The idea that Olive and my parents would have a long journey there and back, in my head, it just couldn’t happen. We couldn’t do that to Anthony, he had to fly into Shannon.
“So, how much is it to hire a jet, it probably would have been 60 or 70 grand?” my husband Pat asked. I did something I never do and picked up the phone and rang Paul O’Connell – “Who do you know with a plane?” – “Leave it with me Rosie,” Paul replied.
”Not too long after, my phone rang, and I answered. It was Michael O’Leary. “I’ve a 60-seater at hand wherever and whenever you need it,” he said.
Michael took personal charge of all the flight details, he liased with our local undertaker John Lynch and with Amanda Bane in Paris. Ryanair had never repatriated a body from France before. It was amazing to see the kindness of people, moving heaven and earth to make sure everything was done right.
Our flight from Shannon to Paris to bring Anthony home contained both Mick Galwey and Paul O’Connell – one was Munster captain before Anthony and the other was captain after him. It was a Munster guard of honour for my brother – a true Munster Man.
We had the local organisations, all wanting to help our family in any way they could. People on the street letting people in their houses, local bus companies ferrying people out to Killaloe, how can you say thank you to so many people? Our local priests especially Fr Grace allowing us to use our local church St Flannans to hold Anthony’s removal.
I remember at one stage thinking that, during the bad days at Munster, I wish there was a bit more compassion shown to Anthony like we’re seeing now.
”Even in your darkest hour, it is sport that keeps you going.
Dad told us the Irish Rugby Team were going to do something amazing for Anthony when Ireland played the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016. We just watched on like everyone else as the team formed a number 8 in the face of the Haka. It was an incredible way to remember Anthony. An iconic Irish sporting moment.
The last game Anthony played against the All Blacks ended in the exact reverse result. We were watching the match thinking there is something greater going on in this universe that we’re not a party to.
We were lucky to have someone like Anthony in our lives, it’s great to see the impact someone has, all the way through his life. He was an honest rugby player and person. You see the good that is out there, in sport worldwide, and in people.
To see my son Oisin, and Anthony’s son Tony play rugby for St Munchin’s, who Anthony adored, is very heartening. But to see the kids here in Killaloe and Ballina with their friends going to discos, and going swimming, doing the same things we did growing up and having the same sense of community, playing with their local GAA team, it’s fantastic.
I feel a strong sense that he’s around. I’d still talk to him all the time, I’d say “I hope you’re looking after them today in that rugby match”, or “Where are you when I needed you to pick the kids up from the disco?”
I know Anthony didn’t want to go, but his time was up, and there was absolutely nothing we could do about that.
Life is for living. We always lived in the moment, but what happened to my brother compounded that for us.
From the very start, we were brought up with the philosophy that you can’t assume you will be playing the next day, so, “Do your best today.”
That’s all you can do.