Sitting alone, the poor woman was hit upon by a businessman who presumed she was a prostitute, and asked her how much. A scandalous way for any woman to be treated, but especially one who had just completed a clandestine and crucial mission on behalf of Munster rugby.
At the behest of her boss Brian Busteed, Maxwell-Muller had delivered a videotape of Cardiff playing the All Blacks to Ireland so that Tom Kiernan could sit his players down to study it. More than a quarter of a century before Brian Kerr would be furnishing his squad with personal DVDs about their opponents, Kiernan was going to enormous lengths during the build-up to Munster’s finest hour. That his players subsequently authored the province’s most famous victory demonstrates the seismic result was no accident.
We don’t usually cover rugby in this column, as we know little and could care less about the sport. Perhaps the only two things that have ever interested us about the game are the aforementioned match and the supposedly classless structure of Limerick rugby.
In “Stand Up and Fight”, his enthralling new book reliving that encounter, Alan English, a Limerick native long since domiciled with The Sunday Times in London, answers every question we had about both.
On the way to relating the story of a single match, he segues into moving social and personal histories, uncovers astounding detail, and then, finally, offers us the chance to relive the action itself through the eyes of the key participants. Part of English’s fine achievement here is getting the likes of Kiernan, Gerry McLoughlin and Brendan Foley to open up to him, not just about the game or their careers, but about their lives. Like all the best sports books, this one veers way beyond the white lines of the field and situates the characters and the action in a Limerick and an Ireland we have almost already forgotten.
“They (St. Mary’s) were formed in 1943 by a fella called Whacker Casey and their headquarters then was a broken-down house in Glueyard Lane owned by a character called Hadah Sweeney,” says Brendan Foley in one delightful extract. “Most nights he stumbled in drunk singing his song ‘Ireland, Mother Ireland’. There were no chairs, just a couple of timber benches and a fireplace. He had no electric light, just a paraffin lamp so they paid for it out of God knows what. Then they got him a bag of coal a week to keep him warm.
“By the time I joined, Saints had bought an old timber hut from Shannon airport and put it up directly in front of Hadah’s house. This became the new clubhouse. They called it the Casbah. There was a potbelly stove inside, where Peter Hayes would boil oxtail soup. Between Hadah’s and the Casbah was a pieces of waste ground, about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide. That was another of our training grounds. It was such a cramped space that fellas had to throw lineout balls from inside Hadah’s house.”
Colorful as Foley’s contributions to the narrative are, they are just shaded by the memorable input of Gerry McLoughlin. His meditation on the lot of the rugby prop is a classic, equal parts egotistical rant and spiritual reflection.
“At Thomond Park, I was always aware that people who knew about propping were watching me,” said McLoughlin. “They’d say, ‘You were in trouble there. This was wrong. That was wrong.’ Nobody told you if you played well. So the last thing you wanted to do was go backwards. You just couldn’t let it happen, not in front of your own people. We knew where they lived, where they drank, what they did for a living, where they liked to stand in the ground. I was up against Gary Knight that day. Two stone heavier than me and three inches taller, but I didn’t fear him. I never feared any prop in my life.”
While everybody involved in the Munster win is a hero, the architect of the triumph was unquestionably Kiernan. During the build-up, no detail was too small to go unchecked by the Cork coach for whom a victory over the All Blacks had become a personal obsession. In researching this work, English followed Kiernan’s example, unearthing little nuances and fascinating incidents that carry the narrative along, building all the time towards those two epic chapters where the dramatic personae relate their own experiences in a lively swatch of oral history.
It helps, too, that English finds another layer of pathos to counterpoint the sporting drama. As Donal Canniffe is leading Munster towards the finish line in Limerick, his father Dan drops down and dies outside Barry’s Timber in Cork city. Dan Canniffe’s final moments are evocatively recreated by a co-worker and juxtaposed in the most poignant fashion with the denouement at Thomond.
For the non-rugby fan, and the legion of arriviste rugby devotees who have sprung up around Munster in recent years, this book offers an opportunity to learn an awful lot. For the alickadoos, it is a chance to savor the most unique occasion in the history of Irish rugby, and because so much has changed, one that will never come again.
About 18 months ago, we happened upon a conversation on radio where some guy was talking about the upsurge of interest in rugby around the province.
“Munster’s not just a brand,” said he, “it’s a lifestyle.”
By some distance the most obnoxious sentence we’ve heard uttered in the name of sport, that guy and his fellow travelers should read “Stand Up and Fight” again and again until they realize there was a team before there was a brand. A very special team. A very special book.
Stand Up and Fight — When Munster Beat the All Blacks is available now and retails for