The most obvious starting point when exploring the myths surrounding Munster’s historic win over New Zealand is the attendance. At least I can honestly declare that “yes, I was there”, a claim that many in the years that followed that famous encounter deemed to imagine.
As Munster’s Heineken Cup march on Europe began in earnest at the turn of the millennium, and the numbers following the province soared to unprecedented levels, the badge of honour was an ability to claim “I was there the day we beat the All Blacks.”
By that benchmark alone, the numbers crammed into the old Thomond Park would have needed to expand four-fold. Asked to recount his experiences of the game for the Limerick Leader two weeks after the match, the great Listowel playwright and lifelong family friend John B Keane turned clairvoyant.
At least from my perch on the terrace in front of the main stand — the only stand in the ground at the time — there was no sense of a crush or overcrowding. The only time that became an issue was when Christy Cantillon scored his try to the left of the goalposts and the place went ballistic.
The only other occasion when space was at a premium was when the crowd on that side of the pitch attempted to congregate around the small gate leading to the field to cheer the players as they attempted to make their way to the dressing rooms under the stand.
Over the years, many professed to be there but only a comparative few can claim that special moment in Munster sporting history with a clear conscience.
After such a heroic and spirited stand against a New Zealand side that went unbeaten on the remainder of their 18-match tour, much focus turned on Munster’s coach Tom Kiernan and the role he played in fashioning that memorable victory. Tommy played for and captained Munster twice against the All Blacks, a 3-6 defeat in 1963 and the gut-wrenching 3-3 draw in Musgrave Park in 1973.
Having led both Ireland and the Lions on their tour of South Africa in 1968, Kiernan was renowned as a highly intelligent and passionate leader with some of his pre-match speeches entering rugby folklore. So much so that rumours began to emerge in the months following the game of the rousing send-off Kiernan delivered in the team room at the new Jurys Hotel on the Ennis Road, prior to boarding the coach for the short journey to Thomond Park.
The reality could not have been more different. The players were nervous enough as it was when they arrived with their gear bags into the meeting and took their seats in preparation for what Kiernan was about to unleash.
They sat, heads bowed and waited. The silence was eerie, broken only by the noise of a wedding party entering the hotel foyer at that time. They waited for Kiernan to address them, to tell them what he expected of each and every player.
The minutes ticked by, yet, nothing but silence. The vacuum made some players uncomfortable but helped others to concentrate on the task at hand and focus the mind. What is he going to say?
They sat there for all of 15 minutes but Kiernan never uttered a word before finally declaring that they were ready to make history. He stood up and led them out of the room.
In the years that followed, I was party to several similar experiences when subsequent coaches attempted to replicate Kiernan’s approach that day but somehow, it didn’t have the same effect. In perfect silence, Kiernan delivered his strongest message ever.
Seamus Dennison’s bone-crunching hit on All Black icon Stu Wilson was recognised immediately as a line drawn in the sand. Coming as it did in the opening five minutes of the game, it sent a clear message to the tourists. This Munster team will not be taking a backward step.
Dennison’s tackle entered rugby folklore in the years that followed. The fact that footage of the game was extremely limited only served to heighten the image even further.
Best tackle of all time.
Wilson was flattened. The legend grew, embellished with the passage of time.
Rugby has changed so much since the advent of professionalism that some of the archive footing surrounding games, even in the not-too-distant past, can make you cringe. When Guinness produced that brilliant promotion a few years ago, depicting some rare images from the game, Dennison’s tackle left some of the current generation wondering what all the fuss was about.
The modern-day defence coach would certainly question the technical merit of Dennison’s tackle while a referee might even penalise the Garryowen man given that he failed to wrap his arms in the tackle. Who cares?
In current rugby parlance, Dennison would nowadays be described as a shooter, leaving his man and shooting out of the line to smash the visitors’ winger as he attempted to enter the line. Regardless of the marks it might attract for technical merit, that hit set the tone for what followed. On that basis alone, its place in rugby folklore is cemented.
In the decades that followed, any Munster fan worth their salt could rattle off the names of the 15 heroes that did battle that day. The player who often proved problematic was London Irish prop Les White as he only enjoyed a handful of games in the red jersey but, from Pat Whelan beside him right through to Larry Maloney at full back, the names flowed seamlessly.
As time passed, considerable debate surrounded the composition of the Munster bench. It didn’t help that the match programme listed six replacements but only five were actually togged out. The problem stemmed from the fact that for international rugby, the reserves bench had recently been extended to six players but five remained the norm for all other matches.
Therefore, while Barry McGann is listed as a substitute in the official match programme, he sat in the stand next to the subs in his civvies and therefore couldn’t have been introduced off the bench in the event of injury.
Anthony O Leary, who captained Munster in the win over Australia three years later, is also listed as a substitute but he was injured in training the day before when Moss Keane fell on his knee and he was replaced at the last minute by Declan Smith of Cork Constitution.
Ted Mulcahy and Gerry Hurley (father of 2008 Heineken Cup winner Denis) covered prop and hooker respectively with Smith covering the back five. Olann Kelleher was sub scrum-half to captain Donal Caniffe, leaving the late Micky O Sullivan as cover for the outside backs, with Moss Finn back up out-half to Tony Ward. The only replacement that actually featured in the game was New Zealand’s Bill Osborne.
As the years passed, the replacements bench became shrouded in mystery. Some even managed to convince themselves they saw game time that day. Olann Kelleher did confess a few years later to his Dolphin colleague Phil O’Callaghan — who it was alleged conceded the penalty that denied the 1973 Munster team the accolade of the first Irish side to beat the All Blacks — 10 minutes against New Zealand that day in Limerick would have done him. Sharp as a tack Philo replied: “Olann, it would probably have done New Zealand too.”
What was undoubtedly the greatest day in Munster rugby history to that point, proved something of a burden for the generation of Munster players that followed immediately afterwards.
While the strong tradition of competing against touring sides was upheld and embellished further when Munster beat Australia in Musgrave Park three years later, playing away from home in the decade that followed became even more challenging. Apart from the annual jousts against Leinster, Ulster, and Connacht it was my experience that every time we played against teams outside of Ireland, they were waiting for us.
Over the years, I faced the likes of Cardiff, Pontypool, Bridgend, Llanelli, Gloucester, London Counties, and Middlesex in Wales and England. As far afield as Farul Constanta on the Black Sea and a Romanian XV in faraway Iasi, a university city 12 miles from the Soviet Union border, Munster’s reputation followed. Despite some notable wins, nothing came easy as all opposition wanted to beat the All Black slayers.
Perhaps the greatest challenge came when New Zealand returned to these shores and played Munster for the first time since the landmark win in Limerick. Eleven years on, Buck Shelford led a Star-studded All Black side, including the majority of the team that won inaugural World Cup two years earlier, in 1989.
It didn’t help that, from the moment they arrived in Cork, the tourists were reminded of the 1978 victory at every turn. By that stage, they had had enough. Munster were elevated to a Saturday fixture and New Zealand were primed. We were soundly beaten.
I knew Shelford from spending a week together in Sydney the previous year, playing for a World XV against Australia to mark the country’s bicentenary celebrations. He told me post-match that they had earmarked the Munster game long before leaving New Zealand as one they simply could not lose on a day history came back to bite us.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved