DONAL LENIHAN: Oct 31, 1978: How privileged we were

Watching those re-runs on RTÉ of Reeling in the Years serves as a graphic reminder of just how much things have changed in modern Ireland — in the majority of cases — for the better.

 

Be it sport, politics, religion, changing values or a catalogue of tragic events, the images depicted from the outset of television coverage in the early 1960s, right through the decades, trigger a stark reminder for people of my generation of what things were like back then.

  

So when asked for my recollections of an event now stretching four decades into the rearview mirror, my memories of the day Munster shocked the rugby world and beat New Zealand 12-0 came flooding back.

Everyone around these parts knows about that. It isn’t as if we kept it quiet.

Even in New Zealand, the manner of that defeat — being held to nil — resonates to this day.

On the eve of Ireland’s opening game of the 2011 World Cup, against USA in New Plymouth, I ventured to Stadium Taranaki by taxi to attend the pre-match press conference.

The usual chit-chat that develops once you engage with the taxi driver was progressing smoothly until he asked me what part of Ireland I was from. I could see he was struggling somewhat when I said Cork, so I refined my response by saying I was from Munster.

A startling metamorphosis took place before my eyes as the previously mild-mannered driver turned sour and broke into a tirade, proclaiming he was shit sick of hearing about Munster and the day they beat the All Blacks. Funny thing was, I hadn’t uttered a word about the match.

His paranoia may well have been fuelled by the fact that his rugby hero growing up was Graham Mourie, not only a native son of Taranaki, but the New Zealand captain on that fateful day in Limerick.

October 31, 1978

I had just started second year in UCC as a 19-year-old commerce student and recall a number of the class approaching one of our lecturers, requesting that he cancel the Tuesday afternoon class so we could travel to Limerick for the game. He declined. I went anyway, travelling with my dad, but left him to meet up with Jerry Holland, my second row partner on the UCC team at the time.

I was a regular on the College senior team at the time and had already played against many of the Munster forwards facing New Zealand that day, including the engine room pairing of Irish internationals Brendan Foley and Moss Keane.

The fact that I had played with Christy Cantillon for College the previous season and that another starter for Munster, Moss Finn, was my current captain at UCC made me feel even more engaged with the events that were about to unfold. It also brought into sharp perspective the prospect of emulating them and playing for Munster against a famous touring side in the future. If they could do it, then why couldn’t I?

Incredibly, this was the third time I had seen Munster play New Zealand in five years. In 1973 some of the New Zealand players visited CBC and took a training session. The following day we were given a half day to watch a match that should have resulted in Munster beating the All Blacks for the first time. A Trevor Morris penalty with just two minutes to go enabled them escape with a 3-3 draw in front of 15,000 people in Musgrave Park.

The following year, in a tour commissioned to mark the centenary of the IRFU, I witnessed the 4-14 defeat at Thomond Park along with the tourists win over the Irish Universities down the Mardyke. The province’s strong tradition of performing against touring sides was well established by that stage but, given Munster’s poor pre-season form, nobody expected much. I was particularly interested in watching the duel between the second rows.

New Zealand’s Andy Haden had featured prominently in the series against the Lions the previous year and was up there as the game’s leading lock at that time. Little did I know we would clash a few years down the line.

Alongside him, Frank Oliver was a teak tough, rugged All Black second row so I was interested to see how Keane and Foley measured up. Holland was much closer to the Munster set up than I was at that stage, having already trained with the squad a few times.

Oct 31, 1978: How privileged we were 

After only five minutes, when Garryowen centre Seamus Dennison halted the mighty Stu Wilson in his tracks with a thunderous tackle, the buzz began to ripple around the ground. The response from the crowd was instantaneous. God, I had played against Dennison too. Forget the second rows, watch the match!

Then the frenzy started in earnest. Standing on the terrace near the perimeter wall in front of the stand we were perfectly positioned, directly opposite Tony Ward, when he placed a brilliant chip in behind the New Zealand winger. I could see the whites of Wardy’s eyes.

Straight in front of us, Jimmy Bowen went whizzing past. The same Jimmy Bowen that we berated from the terraces of Musgrave Park as CBC students when he played for our great city rivals Pres. Holland had bagged a Munster senior schools cup medal at Bowen’s expense only a few years earlier. Yet here we were, two former Christians lads roaring at him with an entirely different motivation as he miraculously collected Wardy’s sumptuous kick in full stride. Go Jimmy, you beauty.

Even better when one of our team-mates found himself supporting on the inside to take the scoring pass. We couldn’t believe it. Cantillon had scored against the All Blacks.

  

Jesus, he’d be insufferable.

No matter, we hugged each other anyway.

"The penny began to drop with everyone around us. Munster could win this. Once Wardy dropped the second of his immaculate goals, stretching the lead to 12 points in the second half, the result became a foregone conclusion."

 

The chants got louder as everyone began to realise that history was unfolding before our eyes. When Welsh referee Corrie Thomas, who did Munster no harm on the day, blew the final whistle the place went mad as everyone began jumping over the wall to run onto the pitch.

I immediately sought out my UCC captain. Moss appeared the only Munster player not to appreciate what they had just achieved. If anything, he was slightly underwhelmed. A perfectionist, he claimed he had only touched the ball twice during the game and that was to hand it to Munster’s trojan hooker Pa Whelan to throw it into the lineout. With the passage of time, he came to appreciate the magnitude of the result a bit more.

Oct 31, 1978: How privileged we were 

I’m not really sure I grasped the significance of the result either and declined an invitation to stay on in Limerick that night, heading back home instead with my dad. The game had an immediate impact on me, however, and I knew what I wanted to achieve after that.

Holland won his first cap three weeks later in Munster’s very next game, against Connacht in Limerick, due to injury. Within two years, I was back in Thomond Park partnering Foley in the second row in a winning debut over Ulster and, over time, lined out with seven of the Munster pack that performed so well against New Zealand that day.

Four of them were still in situ when we beat the next touring side to visit the province, a 15-6 win over Australia in Cork three years later, with Wardy still directing operations at out-half. A journey inspired by that electric day in Limerick had already come full circle.

Epilogue: November 5, 2016, Soldier Field, Chicago: Ireland 40-29 New Zealand.

The figure eight formation that Ireland adopted to face the Haka, in memory of the late, lamented Anthony Foley, provided a poignant link to the 1978 Munster team. The significance hit the minute it dawned on me what the Irish players were doing. Elsewhere in the stadium, Jerry Holland observed proceedings with the nervous energy of a father whose son Billy was on the field in the build-up to kick off and part of the warm up as Ireland’s 24th man. Celebrating the historic triumph later that evening, it emerged in conversation that four of the six at our table had been in Thomond Park in 1978.

How privileged we were.

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