Everyone has a favourite game, though it can be hard to choose. The stand out for me was November 18th, 2008 when New Zealand’s All Blacks came for the official re-opening of the upgraded Thomond Park on the thirtieth anniversary of their legendary defeat to Munster. Back in 1978 rugby was an amateur sport and the Munster team only came together for a few games a year, mainly the inter-provincial games and sometimes against a touring side. Their 12-0 win over the mighty All Blacks was an incredible result, brilliantly captured in the play “Alone it Stands” and proves that you can’t under-estimate the underdog. Thirty years later, could history repeat itself?
The greater capacity of Thomond meant that I had finally worked my way up from Associate membership of the Munster Rugby Supporters Club to Full membership which included the right to buy a ticket to the most sought after games including this special event. However as I drove down from Dublin for the midweek game I did wonder if I was going to witness an annihilation…given the non availability of the Munster players involved with the Irish team playing the Autumn International series. It would have been great to see the European Cup winning team take on the All Blacks but while we knew that those selected would not leave anything behind, the All Blacks have a reputation for being both brilliant and ruthless.
I took my place on the West Terrace about an hour before kick-off and managed to get a good view despite the crowd. Proceedings kicked off with the official unveiling of the plaque to mark the opening of the newly refurbished stadium. Then a light appeared in the sky and grew brighter as the sound of rotars grew louder like the intro to Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon.” It was the Air Corps delivering the match ball by descending a rope as the helicopter hovered over the pitch and presenting the ball to Donal Canniffe, captain of the team of 1978. A standing ovation followed for that team who were all present in the East Stand (other than Tony Ward who was in the commentary box). Their achievement has stood the test of time and added greatly to the Munster traditions and indeed DNA.
Formalities over, it was time to get on with the game. The New Zealand team received a warm reception then the chants of “Munster, Munster” rang out. On the big screen we could see the captain Mick O’Driscoll take the mascot by his hand and lead out the team to be greeted by a fireworks display. As the smoke drifted away there was a poignant moment with both teams and officials lining up for a minutes silence in honour of Limerick man Shane Geoghegan, RIP, who had been shot dead in a case of mistaken identity the previous week.
Then it was time for the traditional haka or Maori war dance which marks the start of All Black games. However there was to be a twist. There had been a lot of speculation during the week that there could be a unique element to the haka, given that the Munster team included 4 New Zealanders, Rua Tipoki, Lifemi Mafi, Doug Howlett and Jeremy Manning. Rua had consulted his Maori elders on an appropriate response to the haka and we were all wondering what it would entail. The team lined up, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, then Rua stepped forward followed by the other 3 and the crowd went wild.
We were so loud we could not hear them but we saw the intensity they brought to the haka in their faces and actions and loved them for it. Once completed they stepped back into line with their team mates and all faced the All Blacks for their rendition. A respectful silence descended and we watched one of the best traditions in the game of rugby as they performed a stirring haka. The substitutes departed and it was time to see if this generation of (professional) players could emulate the achievements of the team of ’78. That Maka/Haka on YouTube has had hundred of thousands of views and still has the power to move me every time I watch it.
I watched the DVD of the match again to refresh my memories and it was great to see the passion, pride, the determination of all the team as they hustled and hassled and harried the New Zealanders, putting in ferocious tackles, chasing everything, putting their body on the line and never, ever giving up. It was not just defence, they made some great breaks in offense also… Paul Warwick was magnificent kicking all his penalty goals plus a sublime drop goal. Peter Stringer was his imperious sergeant major self, directing his forwards and providing quick passes to the backs. The score was 9-3 to Munster (2 penalties and a drop goal by Warwick to a penalty by Donald) when the All Blacks finally made a breakthrough as Donald scored under the posts to give them the lead at 10-9. However that did not signal the opening of the flood gates, the men in red regrouped and continued to make life difficult for the All Blacks despite their ability to make great offloads as they were tackled. Munster’s pressure paid off, Stringer caught their #8 in possession as he looked to drive off the base of the scrum, Niall Ronan hacked through and the chase was on, almost all the way to the tryline. Munster earned a 5m scrum which lead to a second scrum in that danger zone. Coughlan had moved to #8 with the departure of the injured Denis Leamy (replaced by Billy Holland). From the base of the scrum he gathered the ball, offloaded to Stringer who in turn passed to Barry Murphy who touched down – the only try conceded by New Zealand on their Autumn tour that season!
Stringer had timed his pass to perfection, drawing the defender to him, making space for Murphy, and for his selflessness he took a crunching tackle for the team. He is made of hardy stuff and always punches above his weight but this time he stayed down. Chants of “Peter, Peter” rang out around the grounds. I love Billy Keane’s description from his article in the Irish Independent the following week: “Stringer is bigger even than his own immense shadow. Pound for pound, he is the best tackler in the world. If you put him into bag of cats he’d come out without a scratch. He was hit very late for Murphy’s try. And when he got up, as we knew he would, the crowd cried his name as if he had just fixed the economy.”
His bravery earned him a standing ovation as he returned to his feet and Paul Warwick converted the try to bring the score to 16-10. So it remained till the NZ full back Corey James ran into touch to end the half and handed the match ball to a surprised and delighted young boy in the east terrace.
The crowd were buzzing during the interval, so far the evening had surpassed our hopes but could we hold onto the lead? Donald scored a penalty to bring the score to 16-13. He missed a few attempts that night keeping the score close and hopes alive. The Munster players began to pay a toll for their heroic efforts in defense and in attack..Rua Tipoki limped off as did Frankie Sheehan replaced by Jeremy Manning and Denis Fogarty respectively. New Zealand by comparison could spring John Afoa and Brad Thorn (European Cup winner with Leinster) from their bench. Could the supporters lift them through the rest of the game? The Fields of Athenry rang out but did not sway the referee. Romain Poite from France was the man in charge that day and he was certainly not a “homer” then or indeed on any of his subsequent visits to Thomond Park. It is a pity that the final turning point of the game came from one of his more questionable decisions – Mick O’Driscoll spotted a ball had come out of the ruck on the opposite side to the ref and he pounced on it but was penalised for coming in from the side…harshly we all thought. New Zealand opted for the line out which was secured by Brad Thorn, they then mauled up the field as the tired Munster legs tried to halt their progress. The ball was flung out to Rokococo who avoided the tackles of Howlett and Stringer to score..and reclaim the lead 18-16. It was heart breaking, but there were still almost 3 minutes left for Munster to score and win. They gave it everything, and won a penalty but deep in their own half. It got them to the half way line but they could not score again and so it finished. The players were shattered to have come so close but not close enough to win, but they created their own bit of history that night and added to the legend of Munster.
It is sad to see some of the heroes that day like Ian Dowling, Denis Leamy and Barry Murphy play so well but whose careers were cut short by injury. Other players like Mick O’Driscoll, Frankie Sheehan and Federico Pucciariello have since retired while another group including Paul Warwick, Lifemei Mafi, Jeremy Manning, Timmy Ryan, Tony Buckley and Denis Fogarty moved to other clubs.
Quotes from some of the players involved about the unique occasion:
Rua Tipoki: “I’m not disappointed at all just because of the way the boys did it – I would have been disappointed if we didn’t leave it all out there. But we did everything we could on the day. I’m just so proud to be a Munster man today. I’m still a bit emotional. Obviously we had a lot of players who couldn’t be chosen today but we said before we went out on the field that we wouldn’t trade places with anyone. We were going out to be soldiers for each other, we were going to go to war for each other.”
Mick O’Driscoll: “There was nothing left in the tank. It was a superb performance by one and all and we probably deserved a little more.”
Munster Howlett; Murphy, Tipoki (Manning 53), Mafi, Dowling; Warwick, Stringer; Pucciariello, Sheahan (Fogarty 62), T Ryan (Buckley h-t), M O’Driscoll, D Ryan, Coughlan, Ronan, Leamy (Holland 22).
Tries Murphy. Con Warwick. Pens Warwick 2. Drop- goal Warwick.
All Blacks Jane; Gear (Kahui 63), Tuitavake, Toeava (Muliaina 71), Rokocoko; Donald, Weepu (Mathewson 62); Mackintosh, Flynn (Elliott 62), Franks (Afoa 54), Filipo (Thorn 70). Eaton, Thomson (Read 50), Waldrom, Messam.
Tries Donald, Rokocoko. Con Donald. Pens Donald 2.
This Guinness advert has generated a lot of interest in the 1978 game.
This documentary interviews many of the players from that game including Tony Ward, Brendan Foley, Gerry McLouglin, and New Zealander Stu Wilson:
This view of the game and in particular how impressed the NZ attendee Martin Moodie (www.TheCupIsComingHome.com) was with the respect of the Munster supporters is also worth reading.
You can also relive the 1978 game in this piece from Where Miracles Happen: The Story of Thomond Park, by Charlie Mulqueen and Brendan O’Dowd.: http://www.irishexaminer.com/sport/rugby/we-were-facing-a-team-of-kamikaze-tacklers-362232.html