Paul Rouse.

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How Moss Keane was at the epicentre of a changing Ireland

The presence of players in the squad who grew up playing both GAA and rugby is a reminder of the changes in Irish society over recent decades, writes Paul Rouse.

How Moss Keane was at the epicentre of a changing Ireland

Right at the beginning of Moss Keane’s autobiography, Rucks, Mauls and Gaelic Football (written with Billy Keane), there is a story about the day he won his first cap for Ireland.

It was a Saturday in January 1974 and he was in the dressing room of the glorious Parc des Princes stadium. Ray McLoughlin, the prop forward, called him into the corner for a quiet word a few minutes before the teams had gone out onto the field.

McLoughlin said to Keane: ‘They’ll target you because it’s your first cap. You must give no quarter or you’ll never wear the green jersey again.’

Keane, though, was untroubled at the prospect of a fight or being set upon.

Indeed, he was more worried by the idea that he would look like a bit of a donkey in front of 60,000 people and the many hundreds of thousands who were watching at home on TV.

As it turned out, Ireland lost narrowly, Keane played well and he did, indeed, also receive the obligatory punches and kicks from the French – to the extent that he was carried from the field pumping blood, and after the game was stitched up by a surgeon without anesthetic so that he could go drinking in Paris.

This is, in many respects, the type of anecdote that could be found in any number of sporting biographies – a coming-of-age ritual that is typical of its time and of most times.

But there are a few lines in the middle of the story that jump off the page. In respect of the advice he got from McLoughlin and other veterans of the team, he wrote: ‘I could do with all the advice I could get. It was only two years since my first game of rugby and here I was, a rookie as green as my jersey, in the dressing room of one of the most famous sports arenas in the world.’

How can it be that a man who had never played a game of rugby before his 20s could end up becoming an international so quickly?

The explanation partly lies in his childhood. He had come from Currow in Kerry and the world that he had grown up in was given to Gaelic football. His heroes were Kerry footballers and that was what he, too, aspired to be.

It wasn’t just that he didn’t play rugby in his youth, it was more that there was a binary relationship set up for him between Gaelic football and rugby.

It began with what his father told him when he started to kick a ball around with the friends in the corner of a field, using goalposts they had cut for themselves: ‘No cursing, kicking, scraping or biting. Get the ball in hand and then kick it. It’s catch and kick. That’s what it is. It’s not soccer you’re playing. Hit hard with the shoulder, but hit fair. And let there be no pulling and dragging at jerseys or jumping up on fellas like in that oul’ rugby. And no crying.’

And when he went to St Brendan’s College in Killarney, he made the school team and dreamed of winning All-Irelands for Kerry.

His schooldays are speckled with memories of matches played, matches watched, matches listened to on the radio, matches imagined.

In the summer of 1966, at 18 years of age, he made the Currow senior team. He played in goals and also made the district minor team, with whom he won a Kerry minor championship.

It was, though, becoming apparent to him that he wasn’t going to be good enough to play senior football for Kerry.

His friend Johnny crystallised that gathering doubt, when the two were working out on the farm and Johnny said to him he was “unlikely to make it to the very highest level at Gaelic football’.

Johnny mentioned to him, though, that he might consider rugby. Johnny’s reasoning was that it was his size that worked against him in Gaelic football, but what would prove a handicap in one sport, would prove a boon in another.

And of course, Moss Keane had seen rugby on TV, he knew that Castleisland had a team and knew too that the Doyle brothers (including Mick) who were reared on a nearby farm, played rugby in their boarding school, Newbridge College.

And so, when he headed to University College Cork, as summer turned to autumn, the thoughts of playing rugby was in his head.

But those thoughts were slow to form into something more tangible.

When he went to UCC he found a home in the Mardyke, with the Freshers’ Gaelic football team, then the Sigerson Cup team and then the UCC team that played in the Cork county championship.

He was such a success that he was parachuted into the Kerry team that played Derry in the 1968 All-Ireland U21 semi-final, played for the Kerry junior team in an All-Ireland final and then got a trial for the Kerry senior team.

Again, though, he was good, but not quite good enough.

It was then that fate intervened. Down at the Mardyke, the UCC rugby team trained across from the GAA team.

There was some fraternisation but it was limited: “There was no hostility between the Gaelic and rugby clubs but we weren’t as close as we should have been, thanks to the divisive GAA ban.”

And then the crysallis moment: a group of student doctors organised a novelty match and a group of GAA players in the college played a rugby match.

And it appears to have been just a riot of fun. Allowing for the fact that the stories from that day have undoubtedly been burnished with time, the one that stands out is where Moss Keane (the Kerry footballer) threw out a pass to Billy Morgan (the Cork footballer) in such a way that Morgan got floored by a tackler.

Morgan and Keane were great friends, but Morgan made it clear what he thought of the quality of the pass: ‘Mossy, that oval-shaped yoke is a ball and you are supposed to pass it and not shovel it out like cow shite from some Kerry dunghill.’

Increasingly, he moved towards rugby in UCC — playing in inter-departmental matches and then under an assumed name (‘Moss Fenton’) for the UCC seconds in December 1970: ‘I loved every minute of every rugby match I played and began to realise for the first time that I might just make it at the sport. The game suited me.’ And the times also suited him. Because the GAA was about to abandon its rule on men who played ‘foreign games’ being part of the GAA. This happened at Easter 1971 and on that Easter Sunday, he played his first legal rugby game, for UCC seconds at Musgrave Park.

A great line in the Evening Echo reported: ‘Fenton was dropped for Moss Keane, the well-known GAA player.’ And so it was that Moss Keane truly embarked on a journey that led him within just a couple of years an Irish cap, won in a Parisian cauldron, the first stop on an international career that remains one of the most celebrated in the history of the game on the island.

That a person should have been banned from playing Gaelic games because he played rugby or soccer or cricket or hockey was a product of the politics of Ireland in the early years of the 20th century. That the ban should have endured so long was a product of the partition of Ireland and of the desire of certain ideologues to match political revolution with cultural revolution. For such men, it was not enough that Ireland should be free, it should also be Gaelic.

But their vision was undone by the march of time and the change of technology.

For example, it was patently absurd that a man could be banned from GAA — or a woman banned from camogie — because they went and watched a rugby international at Lansdowne Road, while those who stayed at home to watch the match on TV were fine. And, of course, there were also deep social resentments built into the ban and its meaning — if only for some.

And a reminder of the extent to which things have changed since the early 1970s can be found in the composition of the Munster team over the last number of years and, again, this weekend.

The presence of players in the squad who grew up playing both GAA and rugby is a reminder of the changes in Irish society over recent decades — and that’s not even to mention the fact that there will also be a Leinster man running the show!

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