Tony Ward: October 31, 1978 – The day a rugby match at Thomond Park changed my sporting life

Where have those four decades gone? Forty years since ‘Munster 12, New Zealand 0’ reverberated around the world. It is scary in the extreme and a gentle reminder to those of us involved, who back then thought we were invincible, as to how truly precious is life and the passing of time.

Sadly, we have lost three of our number since Corris Thomas blew the final whistle on that eventful Halloween afternoon in Limerick. Replacement full-back Mickey O’Sullivan was the first to depart this mortal world and since our last official gathering (bar one) two of our three Lions – Moss Keane and Colm Tucker – have moved on to that Dream Team in the sky.

It’s amazing when we retire from whatever pursuit in whatever field how much better we become with the passage of time. So much easier to tell others what they are doing wrong. There is no such thing as the perfect player nor will there ever be, but perfect pundits abound. I sincerely hope I have never come remotely close to that latter category.

On a personal level, I had many ups and downs through my sporting career. Fear not, I have no intention of treading that route now. Highs come no greater than being chosen to represent your country and I echo that. The moment when you are told that you have been chosen to wear the shamrock at the highest level is, in a sporting context, a personal achievement apart. It is the ultimate honour and I was so privileged to achieve that status.

But press me for the greatest 80-minute experience of my rugby-playing career and what transpired in Limerick on October 31, 1978 stands well and truly alone.

A senior career that embraced St Mary’s, Garryowen, Greystones, Munster, Leinster, Ireland, the Barbarians and the Lions put fair mileage on the clock so to pick that one match above all others, with many played at higher levels, says it all.

I know I speak for all 22 involved that memorable day when I say that they too share that view. Big Moss and Gerry McLoughlin played in the historic Triple Crown-winning breakthrough with Ireland (first since 1949) in 1982 but each treasured Munster’s win over the All Blacks as the greatest of their lot.

I’ll not go down the ‘how great were we’ path as many forests have been felled to that end over the years. However, the build-up to that game is as fresh in the memory now as it was in the days and months in the immediate aftermath.

We arrived to Jury’s Hotel on the Ennis Road (now the Strand) on a typical ‘Angela’s Ashes’ soft Treaty City day. The rain pumped down as we checked in at our base ahead of training out in Corbally (at St Munchin’s) on the Saturday afternoon.

It was preparation unprecedented in the history of Munster rugby and because of the match day falling on the Tuesday, after the long weekend and Bank Holiday, it outdid Ireland’s international build-ups from those times too.

With Ireland, we gathered in the Shelbourne on a Thursday for lunch and trained that afternoon and Friday ahead of the match on Saturday. With Munster, for this once-off game, the old Grey Fox that was Tom Kiernan, in tandem with chairman of selectors Benny O’Dowd, had us together from Saturday through to Wednesday. It was unprecedented and it did make a difference.

I think it important we record the 22: Larry Moloney (Garryowen); Moss Finn (UCC), Seamus Dennison (Garryowen), Greg Barrett (Cork Constitution), Jimmy Bowe (Cork Con); Tony Ward (St Mary’s/Garryowen), Donal Canniffe (capt, Lansdowne); Ginger McLoughlin (Shannon), Pa Whelan (Garryowen), Les White (London Irish); Moss Keane (Lansdowne), Brendan Foley (Shannon); Christy Cantillon (Cork Con), Colm Tucker (Shannon), Donal Spring (Trinity); Mickey O’Sullivan (Cork Con), Barry McGann (Cork Con), Olan Kelleher (Dolphin), Ted Mulcahy (Bohemians), Gerry Hurley (Sunday’s Well) and Anthony O’Leary (London Irish/Cork Con).

Noel Murphy (Clontarf/Con), McGann, Moloney, Dennison, Bowen, Canniffe, Whelan, Foley, Keane, Spring and yours truly had already been capped by Ireland with Tucker, Finn and McLoughlin set to follow in green soon after.

So it was an extremely talented group of players that had really come together against Australia in Musgrave (now Irish Independent) Park in January 1976. Moloney, Dennison, Ward, Canniffe, McLoughlin, Keane and Foley were all part of that team that lost narrowly to the touring Wallabies (13-15), while Ward, Foley, McLoughlin, Tucker, O’Leary and Cantillon were still central to the Munster team that defeated the Australians 15-6 in Cork in 1981.

My own final game in red against a touring side was when losing (19-31) to the all-conquering Grand Slam-winning Wallabies of 1984 in fog-bound Thomond Park. The game was televised live despite zero visibility with Andy Slack, Nick Farr-Jones, Mark Ella and the rest making good the loss of three years before.

I was born a Dub but was regarded by almost everybody as an adopted Limerick man. A little over three years ago, in March 2015, I was bestowed that status as the Treaty City’s first official Honorary Limerick man. It is a title I cherish and despite the final few years of my representative career being played in the blue of Leinster, it is Munster red that courses through my veins.

The detail of what transpired in Thomond that sun-drenched Halloween afternoon is pretty well-recorded at this stage. However, what made it extra special was the build-up and, for self-evident reasons, the afters. I do not exaggerate when I say that we trained in mudbath conditions before one, maybe two men and a dog in Corbally while on the other side of town in Crescent College across the road from Dooradoyle (Garryowen FC) there were massive traffic and crowd issues as rugby-daft Limerick made its way to see the mighty All Blacks train in the flesh.

The Monday ‘Leader’ highlighted the contrast in its banner headline with accompanying photographs and front page story. All that just 24 hours before kick-off.

But were we back at our Ennis Road base indulging in self-pity and apprehension when reading the main news medium of the time? Not on your Nelly. We were up the lakes between Killaloe and Lough Derg having a blast. Kiernan had organised two sizeable boats through Cormac Cruises (an exiled Kiwi) and loaded each with buckets, water pistols and hoses. As if the rain wasn’t enough (it pumped down incessantly from Saturday through to Tuesday morning), we spent I couldn’t tell you how long conducting our own naval battle on the lakes. You couldn’t make it up!

Yet in those few hours we had succeeded in releasing the shackles and hitting a unifying sweet point that even our pre-season tour to London (where we got hammered by Middlesex before scraping a draw at Sunbury against an Exiles XV) failed to come even close to replicating.

Thirty odd drowned rats arrived back at base (imagine the scene in the hotel foyer?) and how not one of our number caught his death of cold remains a mystery to this day. And, with respect to Gloucester and Saracens (to name but two), the build-up to the definitive Miracle Match, the original of the species, was under way.

I would make the point too that the Munster rugby story did not begin in 2006 or 2008 with those Heineken Cup wins. It did not begin in 1997 when the game opened its doors to professionalism. Nor did it begin in ’78 when we beat the All Blacks.

And with respect to skipper TJ (Kiernan), forward leader Noisy (Noel) Murphy and the ground-breaking victors over Australia (11-8) in 1967, that wasn’t the starting point either.

It all began with a thumping to Dave Gallagher’s New Zealand ‘Invincibles’ at the Market’s Field in 1905 but after that was established a tradition that made Munster, whether in Limerick or Cork, effectively another Test match for every touring side coming this way.

Therein lay the greatest pressure and I believe the biggest single reason we did what we did when we did on the High Altar at the then spiritual home of Munster and Irish rugby. We didn’t expect to beat the mighty All Blacks but did we believe we could? Yes, yes and yes again.

I never played a game in any sporting endeavour, specifically rugby and/or soccer, that I didn’t believe we could win… never, ever.

And that was the theme from Kiernan at every get-together in the build-up to the match. It was about honouring the jersey, respecting the legacy and, however clichéd it might sound, dying for that cause. The individual components were of course covered in great detail but never did he (or we) stray from that central plank in our build-up.

I cannot speak for all (although I suspect I do) when I say that the Munster legacy against touring sides was the strongest asset but equally the greatest burden of all running out in Limerick on that spring-like October day.

The Haka (then a relative mystery) was incidental, the quality of the opposition a fact, the expectation as to the outcome (beyond the team room) a given. But for us individually and collectively it was about performance and honouring the past. With that in place, anything and everything was possible. It is a philosophy that applies in every sporting endeavour to this day.

Our venerable skipper naturally denies it but in the shocked stadium silence (we were 9-0 up) which you could cut with a knife, Donal (Canniffe) did reference ’40 minutes from immortality’. Motivational words in the context of what still needed to be done, the prize now dangling, and how with more of the same it was within touching distance.

And the rest is history – as John Breen’s ‘Alone It Stands’ and Alan English’s ‘Stand up and Fight’ in particular testify. There was nearly a David and Goliath silver screen Hollywood production too.

As for us? Just so proud to have been the wearers of the red on what (given the opposition) was the greatest single Munster win of them all, a giant step on the road to Cardiff ’06.

It was without doubt a life-changing match in a sporting context and certainly the most satisfying 80 minutes of my own sporting life.

To have broken the psychological barrier when beating the All Blacks for the very first time was special but to have done so in Thomond before so many passionate Munster rugby folk made it even more special again. As Charlie Mulqueen put it simply but so succinctly in his brilliant book ‘Where Miracles Happen – The Story of Thomond Park (co-written with Benny O’Dowd), “when it comes to Thomond, anything is possible”.

We knew that only too well and maximised the possibility to the full. I feel so proud to have been on board with this exceptional band of warriors.

An achievement shared for life and given that we made a conscious decision to cut down on celebratory dinners (most for charitable causes, I might add) back in 2008 when the All Blacks were last in town (remember Dougie Howlett and the lads doing the Munster Haka), we’ll not shy away from too many from here on in.

We have had but one get-together in the interim for a ‘Legends in Sport’ award in the Mansion House a few years back but today there will be a tribute lunch for our great skipper and scrum-half in Lansdowne Rugby Club ahead of the Cork Con game in the AIL (the two clubs Donal represented with such distinction).

There is another planned by Munster Rugby for the Leinster game in Thomond over the Christmas period. Each and every one is precious and appreciated by an extremely modest bunch of lads, every one of whom appreciates how privileged we are and were to be the minders of the shirt on that day of days. The day that changed our sporting lives forever.

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