An unforgettable occasion

OVERALL, it was a great year for Irish sport.

Some things changed — Kilkenny won the minor and intermediate All-Ireland hurling championships and Pádraig Harrington won the USPGA while others stayed the same — Kilkenny won the All-Ireland senior hurling championship and Pádraig Harrington won the British Open.

Oh, and yes, Munster regained the Heineken Cup.

Sport is a fickle business. Professional soccer descended into a vortex of cynicism, with obscenely wealthy players cheating, feigning injury and failing to deliver on a moral imperative to entertain. Quality young players like Stephen Ireland and Joey O’Brien display little or no interest in playing for their country; over exposure of the product on television is having a detrimental effect.

Even in amateur sport, player revolt is rife with the footballers of Donegal and the hurlers of Cork, Waterford and Wexford all at odds with their manager and/or respective county boards.

But then, out of the blue, you get an occasion that restores your belief in what sport is all about.

When news first filtered through that New Zealand would break with recent tradition and play a game outside the test arena to open a revamped Thomond Park and commemorate the 30th anniversary of that game in 1978, it was an occasion every Munster diehard wanted to witness. As it became clear that Munster would be deprived of their front line stars due to the demands of the national team, expectancy turned to concern and despair. This could not be the contest that one might have hoped for.

In the days leading up to the game, the word emanating from the camp was that Munster’s New Zealand contingent was devising a response to the Haka. I hoped it wouldn’t be something cheesy or distasteful. Former Maori captain Rua Tipoki ensured there would be no such concerns. He understands Maori culture and tradition better than most. The sense of anticipation in the ground when Munster lined up to face the Haka was electric. What was about to unfold? Was there any foundation to the rumour? When Tipoki, Mafi, Manning and Howlett stepped forward there was a palpable intake of breath in the stadium followed by uproar. This was unprecedented. Of even greater importance was that it was done with the full backing of the tourists. Everyone in the ground was on their feet, participating. I was covering the game for RTÉ radio, where commentator Michael Corcoran, eyes bulging, was seeking out his counter-part from Radio New Zealand to stare him down. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. Then the most amazing sight of all, the All Blacks responding in kind, in total silence, every word audible to the naked ear “KA MATE KA MATE — KORA KORA….”

I have seen and heard the Haka up close and from a distance on many occasions but never like this. Even the younger All Blacks looked bemused. They are used to hostility at this juncture, not respect. It set the ground rules for the night.

The fact that Munster lost at the death took very little from what was a truly historic occasion, one that should alter the structure of future tours. After the game I spoke to a very proud New Zealand rugby union president Andy Leslie. He knows a thing or two about Munster having captained the All Blacks against them in Thomond Park in 1974 and having coached Garryowen for several seasons. In fact but for a change in direction he was set to be Munster’s first professional coach. The emotion in his voice after the game was instructive in itself. He knew he had witnessed something exceptional. He told his New Zealand party what to expect. They listened but did not believe. They do now.

I also spoke to New Zealand coach Graham Henry. He looked at me almost apologetically, “sorry about that”. He felt assured that the occasion would be of tremendous benefit to the young members of his team. “It will stand to them,” he said. He also knew that he had escaped a defeat that would not be well received at home and admitted that he had no choice but to introduce the experienced John Afoa, Brad Thorn and Mils Muliana in the frenetic closing stages. It made the difference. It was the equivalent of Tony McGahan calling on John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan and Ronan O’Gara for the last 10 minutes. Most of all Henry, a man steeped in rugby all his life, was just blown away by the whole event. His reaction made you proud to be a Munster man.

For me one of the most heart warming sights was the reaction of the New Zealand players after the final whistle. On a genuine lap of honour (something you don’t see an All Blacks team do to often) my attention was drawn to replacement second row Thorn as he looked up to the exact point where I was sitting. This guy has had an amazing career having played over 200 games in the Australian rugby league with the Brisbane Broncos. He has played on the biggest stage at a number of levels. The State of Origin series in rugby league when Queensland play New South Wales is Munster v Leinster multiplied 10 times. He has played in Super 14 finals for the Canterbury Crusaders. He has played for Australia in league and New Zealand in union in some of the best arenas sport has to offer. Yet here he was like a kid on Christmas morning with a smile big enough to light up his native Tasmania. For an athlete who at 33 is in the twilight of a unique career, he was storing this occasion in the memory banks. It was that special.

Munster too had their heroes none more so than the largely unheralded quartet of Timmy Ryan, Niall Ronan, Billy Holland and James Coughlan. Within days three of them would be back to the elemental surrounds of the All-Ireland league. Yet they had contributed to something extraordinary that will now be added to the ever growing list of special days in Munster’s rugby history.

My highlight of the year — a no brainer.

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