Rugby historian Edmund Van Esbeck takes a look at Munster’s historic 1978 win over the All Blacks and sets the scene for the 30th anniversary clash between the sides.
Through the years the image recurs of the happenings at Thomond Park on the afternoon of October 31, 1978 for those of us who had the privilege of being present when Munster played the All Blacks.
It is a measure of the historical nature of the occasion that not alone is the score of 12-0 indelible in the memory but also the actual date on which the match was played.
It is utterly appropriate that, in order to set the background against which the match was played we go back in history, however briefly.
The Munster tradition against the elite touring teams from the Southern Hemisphere had begun in the most inauspicious circumstances on November 28, 1905 when Munster played the All Blacks at The Markets Field in Limerick.
On that occasion Munster lost 33-0. That was a great New Zealand touring party that swept most opposition aside and was led by the great Dave Gallaher, who had been born in County Donegal and had emigrated to New Zealand with his parents as a young boy.
Remarkably over 40 years would elapse before Munster next met a major touring team, when Australia visited Ireland and played Munster at the Mardyke in Cork in December 1947.
I have very vivid memories of standing at the river end of the ground on that occasion and the heartbreak of seeing Munster put up a magnificent display before losing the match in the last minute, having led 5-3 before the Wallabies scored a try to steal the game.
That was really the afternoon when Munster laid down the precept and example that future generations of Munster teams would follow so gloriously in the years to come.
There would be other great displays and near misses against touring teams such as in 1951 against the Springboks and in 1954 against New Zealand again, this time at the Mardyke.
It was 3-3 with the match going into injury time but a try by the New Zealand winger Jim Tanner won the day. There were shades of 1947 leaving the ground that afternoon.
Then the Wallabies came again in 1958 and played on a pitch at Thomond Park that was akin to an ice rink, after it had been cleared of snow on the morning of the match. This time the match ended in a 3-3 draw.
The 1960 Springboks came to Musgrave Park and yet again it was a last minute win. With the scored tied at 3-3 the Springboks got a try and penalty in injury time.
In 1963, Munster produced yet another great display against the All Blacks at Thomond Park before going down 6-3.
But the glory would not be too long delayed for at Musgrave Park on January 25, 1967, Munster at last got the reward for their years of endeavour when a team captained by Tom Kiernan beat the Wallabies 11-8.
The victory sent the crowd into ecstasy and thus, Munster became the first Irish provincial side to beat a major touring team.
I think it right that the names of that team be recorded.
The Munster team that day was: Tom Kiernan; Tony Horgan, Jerry Walsh, Barry Bresnihan, Pat McGrath; John Moroney, Liam Hall; Phil O’Callaghan, Ken Ging, Mick O’Callaghan, Benny O’Dowd, Jerry Murray, Noel Murphy, Terry Moore and Liam Coughlan.
The 1970 tour by the Springboks was one interrupted by demonstrations against apartheid, including a march to Thomond Park prior to the game.
It was, too, one of Munster’s least impressive performances against a touring team and was lost 25-9.
The All Blacks were back in 1973 and how near that Munster side came to ‘immortality’. The tourists were fortunate in the extreme to scrape a 3-3 draw at Musgrave Park with a penalty in the last minute.
The All Blacks were back again in 1974 to mark the IRFU centenary and this time won 14-4.
Two years later came another great match at Musgrave Park when the Wallabies won 15-13. But unprecedented glory beckoned for eight of the Munster team that played that afternoon, within two years when they were part of the team that played the All Blacks on that October afternoon in1978.
They were Larry Moloney, Seamus Dennison, Tony Ward, Donal Canniffe, Gerry Mc Loughlin, Pat Whelan, Moss Keane and Brendan Foley.
Tom Kiernan was the Munster coach and as part of his preparation for the visit of the All Blacks, Munster undertook a two-match tour to London playing Middlesex at the old Wasps ground in Sudbury and the Exiles.
Munster took a hammering against Middlesex and lost 33-7 and then managed to draw with an Exiles side mainly composed of London Irish players.
For Kiernan, the tour was but a means to an end and what an end. I can remember talking to him in London after the tour and he felt that it had been well worthwhile despite the results.
The All Blacks, under their captain Graham Mourie, had started their tour in auspicious fashion, winning all their matches before they travelled to Limerick.
Meanwhile, Kiernan was preparing his side after a provincial trial, which was drawn.
He had his side physically fit, a necessity for any team facing the All Blacks, and the ‘old grey fox’ as he was known laid out his strategy.
He had, at his disposal, a pack that included the experience of such as Whelan, Keane and Foley, all internationals and the young and athletic Trinity College student Donal Spring, who had been capped the previous season against Scotland.
The props were Gerry McLoughlin, later to be capped, and Les White of London Irish. Christy Cantillon made up the back row with Spring and Colm Tucker, later to be capped and to play at Test level for the Lions.
They faced an awesome challenge but how magnificently they met it. The team was captained from scrum half by Donal Canniffe, an international and as astute a player as ever filled that onerous position for the province.
His partner was Tony Ward, who the previous season had come onto the international stage and set the scene alight.
The wingers were the UCC student Moss Finn and Jimmy Bowen, both later to be elevated to international status, with the versatile Larry Moloney at full-back.
Seamus Dennison, an international and as good a defensive centre as I have seen and Greg Barrett, a ‘B’ international, completed the team.
Those were the men in whom Kiernan put his faith and how well they justified that trust. Driving from Dublin on the day of the match with my old friend and colleague Sean Diffley, the rain was pouring down and we were discussing how the conditions would have a bearing on the game.
Perhaps it was an omen, but by the time we reached Roscrea the sun had come out. The spectators were flocking to the ground in expectation of another memorable Munster performance.
If memory serves me correctly the official attendance was given at around 13,000 but every square inch was occupied and the crowd was ready to give Munster every encouragement.
The cheer that greeted Munster’s appearance on the field was in itself a declaration of intent – ‘Welcome to Thomond Park All Blacks’, now get ready for an examination.
The tension was intense even before the start. There is a subtle difference between adequate and excellent – and how Munster demonstrated it that afternoon of blessed memory.
Munster tested the All Blacks’ mettle from the start but they weathered the early storm.
In fact they began to get on top and then came a moment that I have always believed was a key factor.
As the All Blacks’ Stu Wilson, the great winger, came in between his centres, Dennison put in a tackle of such ferocity that it sent a shudder through the crowd. You shall not pass was the message and how Munster responded.
Eleven minutes had gone when the ground erupted. Ward gained possession and he placed a superb kick into Bowen’s flight path.
The winger set off downfield, beat a tackle and when challenged by the All Blacks full-back, he managed to get by him.
Bowen cut inside the All Blacks ’25’, as the All Blacks scurried across to cut him off he found Cantillon on his shoulder and the flanker took the pass and scored to the left of the posts.
Ward converted and Munster led 6-0. Now the All Blacks knew they had a challenge on their hands.
After a penalty from Ward fell short, the All Blacks full-back McKechnie knocked on, Munster won the scrum, Canniffe fed Ward and Ward dropped a goal.
Thomond Park was in seventh heaven. But the All Blacks do not die easily. They swarmed to the attack and Munster had to endure some anxiety before the attack was repulsed.
Both Ward and Barrett put in two great relieving kicks. So at half-time Munster led 9-0.
The Blacks were back at the gates early in the second half but there was no way through and the defence was superbly disciplined.
Munster chased and harassed, spoiled All Blacks possession and the further the match went, the more the frustration grew in the ranks of the tourists and the louder the acclaim from stand and terrace.
Then as the match entered it final phase, Ward put Wilson under pressure and he conceded a five yards scrum.
Munster won it but possession was spoiled. From an ensuing ruck, however, Tucker fed Ward and he crowned a great personal and team performance with another drop goal.
Victory was now in sight and as the sounds of battle echoed around the ground we knew we were present at one of the great occasions for Munster rugby.
Never before or since has an All Blacks team lost on Irish soil. The biggest prize of all had been captured. That was and still remains the measure of Munster’s achievement.
Now, in these days as the present generation who wear the Munster jersey carve out historic victories in Europe, let them remember the men who fashioned the Munster tradition.
The afternoon of October 31, 1978 remains indelible in the memory and will as long as memory holds.
It is, too, a very happy circumstance that all those who won that great victory are still with us – for those of us now in the evening of our age and who were fortunate enough to be at Thomond Park that afternoon, they gave an imperishable memory.
This article appeared in ‘IN TOUCH’ – the official IRFU magazine in association with O2.