Not every revolution is televised. RTÉ’s Sports Stadium was still going strong when Munster claimed a first interpro title in 16 years back in 1994. Almost five hours were being aired on Network 2 on your average Saturday at the time but provincial rugby wasn’t part of the picture.
The national broadcaster was otherwise engaged when Munster opened their series by edging past Ulster by a single point in Musgrave Park on a mid-November Saturday afternoon. And the cameras were pointed elsewhere again when Munster routed Connacht by 40 points in Thomond Park a month later to round off the ‘Grand Slam’.
Viewers were instead served up a smorgasbord of offerings on these particular afternoons: everything from the meat and potatoes that was soccer, Gaelic games and horse racing to the more unusual delights of skiing, show-jumping, windsurfing and athletics from Tullamore.
It was different for the club game and an AIL that had been worthy of a 45-minute weekly package earlier in the season but unless there are any old VHS tapes of that interpro series in a dusty storeroom in Montrose or elsewhere then it may well be that the 1994 vintage is the greatest Munster team most of us have never seen and never will.
You couldn’t exaggerate Ulster’s dominance through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. There was one spell when the northern province went 28 games unbeaten. A roll call of touring sides had found Ravenhill to be a source of anguish and Munster’s last win against them anywhere had been recorded in 1980.
Kenny Smith was pivotal to the drought being broken. Fourteen of the 17 points Munster scored that first day in Musgrave Park in ’94 were his, nine from the boot and another five from a try, and the Garryowen man still gets a kick at how the defeat confounded the then president of the Ulster branch as he delivered his post-match speech.
“It was like somebody in the family had passed away,” he recalls.
The official’s reaction was borne of familiarity with success, and maybe the complacency and entitlement that can breed, but Munster’s rebirth had been coming. Thirteen of the province’s players had been contacted when Gerry Murphy, the Ireland head coach, arranged a training session in Mullingar the month before.
The talent was there.
Ulster almost ended this story before it begun but their second-half surge in Cork on the first day fell just short. By the time the series wrapped up, Munster had hammered the Exiles in Sunbury, subjected Leinster to the biggest defeat in their long mutual playing history and put 60 points on Connacht.
Nothing speaks louder for the quality in that dressing-room than the men who missed the storming of Donnybrook. Richard Wallace was in Moscow on business and Michael Bradley, Gabriel Fulcher, Pat O’Hara and Keith Wood were among those injured. Munster won 36-14 anyway. It was their highest ever score in 120 years of the fixture with five tries standing as testimony to their superiority.
Run a finger through the XV that day and the side’s class stands out like braille. Terry Kingston replaced Wood in the lineup: one Test hooker replacing another. The props were John Fitzgerald and Peter Clohessy. The second row? Mick Galwey and Richard Costello, the latter having made his Ireland debut against Scotland a year before. And then there was the back row.
David Corkery had already made his Test debut that summer, in Australia. Anthony Foley and Eddie Halvey wouldn’t be long joining him. Billy O’Shea, who featured on the wing that year, makes no bones about the importance and standard of that pack and still recalls with wonder the level at which that young back row operated from the off.
“It was just a pleasure to play with guys who were top of their game,” he says.
Pat Murray and Smith were the others in the back three that day in Dublin. In Philip Danaher and the Kiwi Sean McCahill, they had a highly-capable centre pairing.
Tying it all together was the youthful half-back Cork Constitution pairing of David O’Mahony and Paul Burke, the latter having just moved from England to take up a teaching role. His performances, like Foley’s, would soon earn him a call to the senior Ireland squad and O’Shea remembers an out-half of rare ability.
“Burkey probably got to the World Cup the next year on the back of his performances for us. I actually thought he was unlucky. Ireland were playing New Zealand and they went with Eric Elwood at out-half. I remember reading it was because of his defence. Now, if you’re choosing an out-half against the All Blacks on the basis of his defence then you’re in trouble.” **********
Necessity wasn’t the mother of invention in ‘94 but it could claim a role as midwife. That Ireland training session in Mullingar in October had left jerseys to be filled the same weekend when Munster and the rest of the provinces played games against their brethren from the Scottish districts. Burke made his debut against Edinburgh while Foley and Stephen McIvor got to show the form that had earned calls to the Ireland Development side.
For Smith, it was a first provincial cap at the age of 31 and he made the most of the belated opportunity in scoring 11 of the 16 points and playing a part in setting up their only try for O’Shea. Smith’s goal-kicking would be exemplary through the campaign and he was still on duty when Munster played in the inaugural Heineken Cup the next year.
“It was a very good side and the fellas that didn’t get in were very good as well,” he says. “I had to stay at a certain level to stay in the side so that was a huge ask of me, not playing international rugby. The likes of me had to step up to make sure we didn’t let the side down.”
The personnel were only part of the story. The AIL was the bedrock. Cork Con, Garryowen (twice) and Young Munster had won the first four national club competitions. Shannon would win the next three. Club players were now putting on the red jersey to face players they had become accustomed to beating year in and year out.
Why should the interpros be any different? “Before the AIL we played Ulster, Leinster and Connacht sides in friendlies,” says Smith. “The Ulster and Leinster sides came to Cork Con and to Limerick when I was there as well and they flashed around the place. They looked like the current All Blacks and it was the greatest rugby you ever saw.
“We kind of greeted them with awe because they played this brand of rugby that we weren’t used to in Munster where we had to beat Shannon, Munsters, Crescent, Highfield, you name them. So when it came to the AIL the only thing in our minds was that we wouldn’t be beaten, whatever it took.”
Ballymena and Wanderers were two of the favourites to win the AIL in its inaugural 1990-91 season. Both had won league and cup doubles in their respective provinces the year before but Smith’s recollection is that neither side ever saw the ball and instead came face to face with a “brutal, aggressive” form of rugby.
The flip side to all that was the intra-provincial rivalries that had produced so many fault lines in Munster in the past but team manager Colm Tucker and head coach Jerry Holland – one of them from Limerick, the other a son of Cork – ignored old enmities and political intrigues when going about their business.
“If a fella was good enough they were going to pick him,” says Murray who had been ten years in the Munster ranks by then. “We went on a trip to Italy that year as well, an invitational thing, and that bonded us together as a team. We played loads of matches that year. If you know a guy and you trust him then you’ll go to war with him.”
So just how good was that Munster side? Jim Staples, the Exiles captain, put it simply. “Awesome,” said the Ireland full-back after their defeat. Murray said at the time it was the best he had ever played on. O’Shea, another Shannon man, says much the same now. Of all the testimonies, none stands out more than that of Tucker whose take at the time was unequivocal.
Tucker claimed after the win against Leinster that the ’94 crew was better than the ’78 team on which he served and seen off the All Blacks. He went further after the Connacht game, declaring the display to be the best he had ever seen by a provincial side. Munster, he said, played a total 15-man game and would put it up to any touring team.
Smith couldn’t help but be tickled about that. “Go away! And coming from a Shannon man as well,” he says with a chuckle that suggests old rivalries haven’t been completely forgotten. “We played a lovely brand of rugby. There was no fear at all in that side. It was a very good team.”
Some predicted it was poised to dominate Irish rugby for years to come. That didn’t come to pass. Munster did win the interpros again two years later and the foundations for that long and famous unbeaten European record at Thomond Park were laid before Holland stepped down in 1998. Claiming the Heineken Cup would develop into an obsession until a team coached by Declan Kidney and managed by Holland saw off Biarritz in Cardiff in 2006 but the boys of ’94 had shown the way, by ushering in an era where the red jersey was divested of so much unwanted baggage, on the pitch and off.
Munster’s 1994 side earned as many plaudits for style as they did results. It was a package that added up to a record-breaking Grand Slam interpro season
the most points in the history of the series
the most points scored by one player (Kenny Smith)
the most points scored in a single game (v Connacht)
their highest ever points total against Leinster
the most points scored by a player in one fame (Kenny Smith)
the most tries in one interpro series