PARIS — From ordinary fans to the president of Ireland, rugby was in mourning Sunday for Munster head coach Anthony Foley, who died overnight at the Irish team’s hotel in Paris ahead of a scheduled European match.
Foley, who was 42, also enjoyed a successful club career with Munster as a backrow forward and represented Ireland 62 times.
Munster had been due to play French side Racing 92 at the Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir stadium on Sunday in northwest Paris. The game was canceled and fans instead gathered outside the stadium and solemnly sang the Irish folk ballad “The Fields of Athenry” in memory of Foley and paused to applaud. Supporters also gathered back home in Limerick to pay tribute at Thomond Park, where Munster plays.
Many fans were dressed in the coveted red jersey of Munster that Foley wore with such distinction on more than 200 occasions.
The Limerick-born Foley captained Munster to European Cup success in the 2006 final against Biarritz. He became Munster’s head coach two years ago, having previously coached the forwards.
The European Champions Cup match on Sunday against Racing 92 was postponed at Munster’s request.
“We share the grief of his loved ones and of the club and offer them our total support,” Racing said in a statement. “We understand that in such circumstances Munster is not able to come to Colombes to play this European Cup match.”
The emotion was strongly felt back home.
“It is with great sadness that I heard of the sudden death of Anthony Foley … one of the great figures of Irish sport in the modern era,” Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins said. “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.”
Mayor of the City and County of Limerick Kieran O’Hanlon praised Foley’s all-round contribution.
“He was a giant among men and a true gentleman,” O’Hanlon said. “As a mark of respect I have requested that all Irish flags flown outside council buildings across Limerick tomorrow be flown at half-mast. Anthony was a true son of Limerick, and Limerick is in mourning for one of their own.”
Munster Rugby said: “It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to our coach, former captain, colleague and friend today, rest in peace Anthony Foley.”
No further details of his death were given by Ireland’s Rugby Federation in a statement on Sunday.
“It is with deep regret that the Irish Rugby Football Union and Munster Rugby must advise of the passing overnight of Munster head coach Anthony Foley,” the statement said.
European Rugby Challenge Cup president Simon Halliday said Foley, who made more than 80 appearances in European competition for the Irish province, “was a magnificent player and a superb coach and he will be sorely missed.”
Foley’s former Munster and Ireland teammate Ronan O’Gara — a standout flyhalf who spent his entire playing career at Munster — is now part of Racing’s coaching staff. They played together for more than 10 years at Munster.
Foley, a regular try scorer for his club, made his Munster debut against Swansea in 1995, the first time the club played in what was then called the Heineken Cup.
Former England and British Lions flyhalf Stuart Barnes, who works as a TV pundit, rated Foley as one of the best backrowers he saw in European Cup competition.
“When there was the first 15 years of this tournament completed, we sat down and asked, ‘What is the best team of them all?’ and Anthony Foley beat the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio to be the number 8,” Barnes told Sky Sports. “It didn’t matter whether you criticized him in the press or in commentary he would shake your hand — a big firm handshake — and have a pint with you afterwards.”
Former teammate Denis Hickie, who played on the wing for Ireland, paid a moving tribute.
“Our careers intersected from a very young age right the way through ’til we both finished with Ireland,” he said. “I’ve very fond memories of him, he used to sit in the same seat (on the bus) behind me.”
Former France captain and flanker Thierry Dusautoir called Foley “a great player and opponent.”
Foley’s father played for Munster and Ireland and his sister was also an Ireland international.