PARIS Munster head coach Anthony Foley, who held a unique place in the tradition and affections of the Ireland province, died overnight at the team's hotel in Paris, plunging Irish rugby into shock and bringing forth a string of tributes on Sunday.
Foley, described as "the heart and soul" of Munster rugby, was 42 years old and leaves a wife and two children. No details about the cause of death have been made public.
"It is with deep regret that the Irish Rugby Football Union and Munster Rugby must advise of the passing overnight of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley, at the team hotel in Paris," read a statement on the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) website (www.irishrugby.ie).
Foley's death prompted the postponement of Munster's game against Racing 92 in the European Rugby Champions Cup in Paris.
Ireland's president Michael D. Higgins led the tributes to the former international, saying: "Anthony Foley excelled from a young age and made a huge contribution to the successes of Munster and Ireland, in both his playing and coaching careers.
"As President of Ireland, and as Patron of the IRFU, I offer them and Munster rugby my deepest sympathies," he added in his statement.
Munster fans who had travelled over for the game in Paris gathered outside the Stade Yves-du-Manoir and gave a mournful, muted rendition of "The Fields of Athenry", a folk song regularly sung by Irish fans at sporting events.
Foley, a powerful back-row forward nicknamed Axel, will be best remembered for captaining Munster to their first Heineken Cup final triumph in 2006, a victory that ended their quest for success in Europe.
No one knew better than Foley, whose father Brendan was part of the Munster team that famously defeated the All Blacks in 1978, how much that meant to the province, whose team had lost their two previous finals.
"He epitomises what Munster rugby is all about. It's absolutely shocking. There's nothing but shock in the air," former Ireland international Donal Lenihan told state broadcaster RTE.
Capped 62 times for Ireland, Foley made 202 appearances for Munster and was also a skilled player in the Irish sports of Gaelic football and hurling.
While he was surrounded by more illustrious team mates like Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell, the Limerick-born Foley had a special relationship with the supporters and his contributions were uniquely cherished.
"He was steeped in Munster rugby. He was a skilful all-rounder but rugby was always going to be his first love," Lenihan said. "He's had an unbroken involvement with Munster from an early age.
"Everything he did was geared for the betterment of Munster rugby."
In a book by Alan English about Munster's 11-year journey to conquer Europe, Foley said he wanted to be remembered as "a stubborn player who wouldn't give in... Once there's something to chase, I'll chase it."
Rugby commentator Tom McGurk told the Independent.ie website: "He was a great leader -- he was the heart and soul of that Munster team. It's absolutely shocking.
"A great, great Munster rugby family - his father Brendan played for Ireland, his sister Rosie played for the Ireland women's team.
"He went from captaincy to coaching Munster. The whole rugby family of Ireland and across Europe is in mourning."
Foley stood down as Munster captain in 2007 and retired after the 2007-08 season. He was appointed Munster forwards coach at the end of the 2011 campaign, and head coach in 2014.
Tributes to Foley came in from clubs, provinces and governing bodies.
"Very sad to learn of the death of Anthony Foley. A great player and opponent! My thoughts are with his family," said former France captain Thierry Dusautoir.
Frankie Sheahan, his former Munster team mate, posted a recent photo of Foley and others celebrating the birthday of Mick Galwey, the Munster favourite who preceded him as captain.
"Distraught at the tragic news of Anthony Foley, great friend, teammate & legend. Super form last weekend at Mick Galwey's 50th. Incomprehensible," he said.
Ireland's Munster-born distance runner Sonia O'Sullivan said Foley's death was "sad and shocking."
Books of condolence will be opened on Monday in council offices across Munster and the Ireland flag will be flown at half mast across local authority offices in the province.
(Writing by Philip O'Connor in Stockholm and Neil Robinson in London; Editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)