In the 141 years that Ireland has played as a test rugby nation, the national team has never beaten the All Blacks. However, back on the 31st October 1978 Munster became the only Irish team ever to beat New Zealand.
On that 1978 tour New Zealand had beaten every other team. Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland had all been convincingly dispatched and put in their place. Teams from across the home nations had lined up against the All Blacks, but all had gone home with their tail between their legs. Out of eighteen fixtures on that tour, New Zealand won all but one.
It was a shock 12-0 victory for one of Ireland’s four provincial sides that turned the world of rugby on its head. On that fateful day, 12,000 fans crammed into Thomond Park. Many, many more thousands of Irish wish they could have been part of that number that day.
As a lifelong England supporter, the passion and devotion of Munster’s fans has always filled me with awe and arguably the seeds of this reverence to the team were sewn on this most famous of days in Irish rugby folklore.
As Brendan Gallagher espoused in his wonderfully crafted article on the match (via The Daily Telegraph):
“The team was Munster writ large. As boisterous school kids many had grown up together, made their first communions together, chased the same girls, drank in the same bars and then kicked the bejesus out of each other for the great rugby schools and clubs of Limerick and Cork.
“Rivalry between Limerick’s big clubs, let alone between Cork and Limerick, was fierce and not always friendly.”
Rugby in Munster is not a hobby, nor a form of entertainment, nor a passing sideshow. For supporters and players alike it is at the very core of their identity. Who can forget those banners that proudly flutter in the breeze at every home game: “Irish by birth, Munster by the grace of God”?
When this writer went on a tour of the old Lansdowne Road stadium, before it was torn down and turned into a modern glass cathedral, crudely branded the Aviva Stadium, my guide tried to articulate to me how rugby permeates Irish society.
“Leinster fans are from the professions, doctor and lawyers, but Munster fans are everyone, including petrol pump attendants.”
This is of course a gross over-simplification, but there is a degree of truth in it. On visiting Limerick and Cork it was clear that the province’s rugby side and the city folk are intertwined with each other.
In some ways then it is no surprise that a single province managed to do what a whole nation could not. Munster did not win 12-0 by playing flamboyant, end-to-end, flair-fuelled rugby to defeat the All Blacks, they did it through sheer guts, determination and ferocity.
That sense of spirit was thoroughly embedded in the players’ approach to the game itself. Despite being a wholly amateur game, the players began preparing for the game a whole six weeks before the match, inspired by the leadership of coach Tom Kiernan. As Charlie Mulqueen explains in his excellent piece for the Irish Examiner:
“The level of respect for Kiernan was so immense that the group would have walked on the proverbial bed of nails for him if he so requested. So they turned up every Wednesday in Fermoy — a kind of halfway house for the guys travelling from three different locations and over appreciable distances.
“Those sessions helped to forge a wonderful team spirit. After all, guys who had been slogging away at work only a short few hours previously would hardly make that kind of sacrifice unless they meant business.”
This victory was founded on a tenacious defence, pinpoint accurate kicking and a forward pack that gained the upper hand at the set-piece and the breakdown. In many ways, this model would be replicated during the most successful era of Munster’s history, when the province would win two Heineken Cups and usher in a new era of Irish dominance in Europe.
Based around a ferocious pack that included the likes of Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Anthony Foley, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy. Each of these players would become a household name for both their province and country. Coupled with the phenomenally accurate service of Peter Stringer and the gifted boot of Ronan O’Gara, Munster followed in the footsteps of their legendary antecedents.
Now, of course, the team are struggling as they look to rebuild a side that can conquer Europe again. Gone have many of the former legends, but new shoots are springing up and with the likes of CJ Stander, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and Keith Earls forming the more experienced spine of the team, a brighter future lies ahead for the Irish side. It speaks volumes of the province that they continue to place their trust in former player Anthony Foley as their head coach despite the team’s recent problems.
A European rugby landscape without a strong Munster side is a much weaker and less fascinating proposition and all genuine fans of rugby should hope that they can rise up again soon and challenge the biggest teams across the continent. Rugby needs more days like that famous match in 1978.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena