THE QUESTION OF what has helped Dave Foley bridge the gap from being a squad player in the Munster set-up to a Heineken starter this season is unknowingly answered within the opening seconds of our interview.
The 25-year-old has been in the province’s University of Limerick office for the past two hours studying line-outs, a duty he will return to immediately after we finish talking.
Sheer hard work is constantly tagged as a make-or-break factor in professional rugby, but intelligent work is just as crucial. Getting experience on the pitch is desperately sought after by young players, but failure to proactively learn outside of that game time is the downfall for some.
Having stood out during his first two Heineken Cup caps for the province against Gloucester and Edinburgh in January, Foley now has further European involvement in his sights.
My goal at the start of the seasons was just to get myself up the pecking order, but my goals now are game-to-game. When the internationals are away, I want to be one of the best players on the field.
“I think it’s important to put my hand up for the rest of the season and be involved in the big games. With the Heineken Cup quarter-final coming up, I want to put my hand up.”
It has been a demanding journey to this point for the Clonmel native, who admits that he didn’t take the game seriously until he was close to turning 18. In hindsight, Foley feels that enjoying hurling, football and rowing as a teenager has been a positive in his rugby career; more rounded skills and more athleticism are the long-term benefits.
Source: ©INPHO/James Crombie
Selection for the Munster Youths at the age of 17 was a turning point for the Clonmel RFC product, proving the gateway to Ireland Youths honours. From there, the second row’s line-out abilities and mobility resulted in the right people noticing him.
Foley’s first step onto the Munster ladder proper was induction into the sub-academy, before a full academy contract followed in 2009. One of his major stumbling blocks in those early years was putting on the weight required for the professional game.
“It’s incredibly difficult. Even now I have to be very conscious of my weight and weighing in; it’s such a slog. I think I came into the the sub-academy at 88kg and now I’m probably in or around 110kg.
There’s a huge amount of weight to be put on in getting there, and I wouldn’t even be a particularly heavy second row at that. That’s the weight I want to play at though; it’s good for me as I’m more of an athletic second row than a big bulky lock.”
With that problem remedied, Foley has already earned eight starts in the current campaign. Previous seasons had been hugely frustrating, and the UL Bohemians man came very close to leaving the province on several occasions.
His passion for Munster saw him stay put, but what exactly were his coaches telling him in those moments of doubt? What did they want to see more of from him?
“When Tony McGahan was here it was different and with Rob Penney here it’s different. I’ve had different relationships with all the coaches, good in separate ways. But I’ve had my differences with coaches as well, you know?
Source: ©INPHO/James Crombie
“I suppose just getting around the field was the main thing they looked for. Ultimately in the second row, our job is a work rate job so once you’re finished your first job you’re straight onto your second job.”
Another reason for staying was the quality of the players around him, even though those same men were preventing him from playing games. Working closely with one of the world’s leading second rows in Paul O’Connell has always been an attractive feature of staying with Munster.
Paul is one of the best second rows in the world, so if I was ever to be looking at anything, he’d be the fella I was looking at. I try to work with him as much as I can, because to be honest I think he’s a step ahead of everybody really.”
Foley has always been a superb line-out operator, with his height, natural spring and movement on the ground all contributing to that. Analysing what O’Connell does at the set-piece is crucial too, as the 34-year-old is “unbelievably good” out of touch.
As a line-out specialist, Foley has enjoyed increasing responsibility for Munster in the area, being trusted with the calling of the set-piece on several occasions this season. He highlights that simply relying on natural gifts is not good enough; the line-out needs detailed planning and video analysis.
“Especially if you’re calling line-outs, you’ve got to go and study the oppositions’ calls. You’ve got to go back over training and the line-outs you’ve been calling for the week. Then you’ve got to make up a menu of calls for the weekend based on how the opposition are defending.
“When you haven’t been calling you can get a bit rusty with it. When you’ve been calling for two or three games, you really get the eye back in on where the space is and what’s good, what’s not good.”
Source: ©INPHO/Tamuna Kulumbegashvili
Foley admits to having had “some difficult conversations” with Penney over the last two seasons, particularly when he found himself as “nearly the last choice second row” at the province despite strong performances for Emerging Ireland in Tbilisi last summer.
All the former Clonmel High School student asked for was a chance, and feels he has “made the most of that” this season. Foley’s Heineken Cup debut away to Gloucester was notable for his apparent lack of nerves, with the 25-year-old adding an aggressive edge to Munster’s forward play.
Having had to bide his time for so long, Foley knew he was ready for that occasion: “I thought to myself that I’ve been around this place for some time now. There were guys that are even younger than me on the pitch, so I didn’t see why it should faze me.
I felt fit, I felt strong and I felt I could make an impact on the game.”
Penney is leaving for Japan at the end of the season and Foley is delighted with the man Munster’s hierarchy have appointed as his replacement.
“I get on great with Anthony Foley, he’s a brilliant coach and he’s done a huge amount for me. I’ve learned a massive amount from him.
“He’s technically just really good. He’s a Munster man and he understand us. He knows what everything means to us and he’s played for I don’t know how many years in the Munster jersey. He’s done it all and he understands what you’ve got to do to get there.”
Munster play the Ospreys in the RaboDirect Pro12 today, with kick-off at Liberty Stadium at 4.00pm.