Rugby Interview with Tom Kiernan
How did Munster beat the All Blacks?
I suppose it was inevitable that Munster would beat a touring side sooner or later as it had come so close to doing so a so many occasions. It was also probably inevitable that the All Blacks would be beaten at least once on tour. No matter how proficient a touring side is, it is extremely difficult to win every match, especially as the provincial sides they meet in mid-week regard the encounter almost as a do-or-die occasion. The combination of these two inevitabitieS had a lot to do with the Munster win.
The victory must have had at least something to do with your preparations.
Of course this is true and in particular the level of fitness the team achieved for the match. We went on a trip to London at the beginning of the season, where we played Middlesex and an Irish exiles side. During the two days beeveen these matches we trained at St. Paul's School, Hammersmith, and there we set a standard of fitness for the team is a whole and special targets for the acks and forwards - the backs concentrating on sharpness and sprinting, the forwards on endurance. After that we !Jet on three Wednesdays in Fermoy and on the Sunday and Monday prior to the match at St. Munchin's College in Limerick. "
As this latter session it was obvious to most onlookers that the Munster team was sharper and fitter than was the case in many years and that we would give the All Blacks a tough game. I was always of the belief that the players had he skills to challenge the All Blacks. It was merely a question of ensuring fitness and a sharpness, and I think we achieved this.
What about the All Blacks? Were you particularly worried before the game?
The most impressive feature of the All Blacks play is the powerful conntinuity of their play. The sheer relenttlessness of their forward play is almost intimidating, especially the manner in which they drive into rucks, overrwhelming all in front of them. We knew we would have to counter this and also do something about their ability to command possession, especially from the line-outs.
We planned on the use of two man line-outs, using Donal Spring and Moss Keane, but in the event we weren't given much opportunity to use this tacctic because they had the vast majority of throw-ins from touch and anyway we were in our own half of the field for most of the match and one doesn't risk short line-outs in these circumstances.
I didn't expect the All Blacks to get as much possession as they did, but the possession they got was for the most part untidy, primarily because Hayden was pressurised against Munster. This was in contrast to his performance against Ireland.
It should also be acknowledged that Munster had its share of luck. Had the All Blacks scored first, in the absence of possession, it would have; been very diffficult for Munster to come; back at them. The fact that Munster scored first meant that the All Blacks had to come at us. We were able to contain them alright, but it would have been very difficult to come from behind at them.
What were the weaknesses of the All Blacks side?
Primarily the relatively poor standard of their back play. In this respect this current side doesn't compare with the side of 1973-74.
The line-outs were a problem for Munnster and Ireland against the All Blacks . Indeed there has been a major deficiiency in Irish teams for several seasons.
This has been a problem in Irish rugby for as long as I can remember. Bill Mulcahy was a great second row forrward and probably his greatest quality was his ability to dispossess opponents once they got the ball, rather than catching it cleanly himself, at least at international level. Willie John McBride was a great line-out jumper in the early stages of his career but for the latter part he was in the Mulcahy mould - a ro bber of opposition ball.
Our present three line-out jumpers for Ireland, Donal Spring, Moss Keane and Willie Duggan are the best as a group that we have had for a long time, certainly since the time of McBride, and Goodall. Spring I think has great potenntial and he will become a great line-out expert with experience. But the signifiicant factor now is that we have three relatively good line-out jumpers and as a group they are the best we have had in a long time.
Getting back to the Munster/All Blacks match. What pleased you most about it apart from the fact of winning?
I was particularly pleased with the way Munster took their chances which was an affirmation of the sharpness the team had attained in its pre-match trainning. The try came from a great piece of anticipation by Bowen, who in the first place had to run around his man to get to Ward's kick ahead. He then beat two men and when finally tackled, managed to keep his balance, keep the ball free and deliver it to Cantillon who went on to score. All this was evidence of sharpness on Bohen's part.
Then there was Ward's second drop goal. A serum had been spoiled and the ball came back on the Munster side under some pressure. In that semi-crisis situation, Tucker got a fine pass out to Ward who dropped a great goal in the circumstances. Again a manifestation of sharpness.
Another pleasing aspect to the perrformance was the controlled discipline of the side. Throughout the match Munnster didn't give away a single penalty in its own half. We succeeded in allaying Munster's traditional fire and aggression to control and discipline.
One of the New Zealand officials exxplained his team's defeat by alleging that Munster had adopted kama-kazi tactics,
I'm not sure what this means but if it is a commentary on the team's tackling then it misses the point that tackling is as integral a part of rugby as is a majesstic midfield centre three quarter break and score under the posts. The perfect timing and execution of a tackle gives me as much pleasure to watch as any other element of rugby.
There were two noteworthy tackles during the match both by Seamus Dennison. It was he who was injured after the first, and indeed, I thought he might have to come off. But happily the injury was only slight, he repeated the tackle some minutes later and played well for the rest of the game.
Munster's victory over the All Blacks has been one of the few accomplishhments of Irish rugby over the last seveeral seasons. What do you think is wrong with Irish rugby at an international level?
I think that we are inclined to exxpect too much of our international side. It must be remembered that rugby is a minority sport in Ireland and that when we play Wales and France we are playying countries at their national games virrtually. We don't have anything like the same 'number of players from which to draw, and we don't have the same deep rugby traditions.
For Ireland it is important that first of all we get the right selectors, who can mould a team together and then resist popular pressure for changes when there are no better options available. The second point is related to the latter, we must get a team together and if possible keep it together. The most successful Irish sides have been the ones that have been playing together for a number of years. The failures of the last few seaasons I think are partly attributable to the enforced changes on the team. You must remember that Ireland lost some of its greatest ever players in the last two seasons, players like McBride, I Mcl.oughlin, Kennedy, Miller etc.' These are not easily replaced.
Coming on to your own playing career, when did you first play for Ireland?
I first played, for Ireland against Enggland at Twickenham in 1960 and played my last game against Scotland in Edinnburgh in 1973. I was dropped twice durring this period and missed five games through injury. In all, I won 54 caps. Playing with me in my first international were Andy Mulligan, then captain, Mick English, Noel Murphy, Tim McGrath (recently deceased), Ronnie Kavanagh, Tony O'Reilly and Dave Hewitt.
In addition to playing for Ireland, I toured twice with the British Lions, both times to South Africa. I played in one test match in 1962 and in all four tests in 1968.
How many times were you captain?
I was captain 24 times, the first time being for one match in 1963. During that season I got injured and Bill Mulcahy took over for two years. I was reeappointed captain for the last match in 1966, when Ray Mcl.oughlm was deeprived of the captaincy. In 1967 Noel Murphy was captain but I was reeappointed captain for the Australian tour at the end of that season, when Noel M~rphy was unavailable. I remained I' captain from then until 1973.
How did Ireland fare during those years?
We beat Wales in 1966, '67, '68 and '70 and in 1967 and '70 we came within one shot of the Triple Crown. But when Ireland was beating Wales, Bob Hiller (the England full back of the late 'sixties) was beating Ireland. How many points did you score for Ireland?
I think it was around 158, which was less than 3 points a match on average. I was never happy goalkicking for Ireland. Although I practiced incessantly at goalkicking I don't think I had the physsical attributes to be really successful. Look at Tony Ward today and see the strength of his thighs. I don't think I was strong enough to have been the regular pace kicker for Ireland. Dave Hewitt took some of the kicks in the early 'sixties and off and on Mike Gibson took kicks at goal and of course Barry McGann did, but none of us had the success rate of Ward, who is worth about 9 points a match.
In many people minds you are reemembered as one of the safest catchers of the ball there was around in decades. Do you remember how many balls you dropped while playing for Ireland?
I couldn't put a number on that but I do remember dropping two balls and as a result the opposing teams scored 3 points. One was in a match against Scotland and the other was in the second international against France in Lanssdowne Road. In 1972, the year Wales and Scotland refused to travel to Dublin. On both occasions Ireland was leading comfortably and both times when I was running to catch the ball I was thinking about counter-attacking. It was my failure to concentrate on the immediate objective that led to me dropping the ball on both occasions. As a result on each occasion a serum was awarded in front of the Irish posts and a penalty was awarded from the serum and we lost 3 points.
I often feel that one of the primary reasons modern full backs are not as reliable fielders of the ball as used to be the case, is because with the emphasis on attacking full back play they are concentrating not on catching the ball but with what they will do when they get it.
Obviously you have played against some of the world's greatest players over a decade. Who was the greatest full back you encountered?
Without question it was J.P.R. Williams, but closely followed by Ken Scotland. Williams was superb in all the attributes a full back should have. He was - indeed is - a superb fielder of the ball. A good kicker, he is very fast and devastating on the break, he times tackles perfectly and his positioning sense is unequalled.
I judged these best by reckoning which I would least like to oppose.
Tony O'Reilly was certainly one of these. He was marvellously strong and fast and while he was renowned abroad for his attacking qualities, when playing with him I remember him best for his defensive - his attacking opportunities were limited when playing for Ireland. His catching, positioning and kicking were first rate and I always felt his very stature intimidated the opposition. It was said of O'Reilly that no other player could alone obstruct an entire opposition back line.
Other outstanding wings I recall were Gerald Davies, David Duckam and the great English wing of the 'fifties, Peter Jackson. I played against him in my first international. Of course Tom Grace and Alan Duggan should not be overlooked as great wingers. They both scored a record number of tries for Ireland in their time and contributed handsomely to the teams they played with.
If I had to choose the single most outstanding player I ever came across I think I would opt for Gibson, though I would also have to consider Gareth Edwards and Colin Meads. Gibson's greatest attribute' was and is his enorrmous work-rate. He had all the skills of a great out-half or centre but he had this phenomenal work rate in addition to these. When he was out half I remember he was always in the comer of my eye as I went to catch a ball or kick to touch. His presence was an enormous reassurance.
There was one particular incident in a match against Australia in Sydney which for me sums up what a great player Gibson was. He was playing out half and ran hard into a pass and dropped it. The Australian out. half, Hawthorn, snapped up the ball and made 40 yards. As I tackled him he passed to his winger, Brass who ran in under the posts. But as he did so Gibson tackled him, twisted him and he failed to touch down. A try was disallowed. It was an incredible effort on Gibson's part and absolutely typical. He was a totally dedicated, generous, team-spirited player. No praise of mine is sufficient for him.
What other centres impressed you?
Dave Hewitt springs to mind immmediately. It was one of the great tragedies of Irish rugby that he played so few times for Ireland. He was part of perhaps the best three-quarter line Ireland fielded with Kevin Flynn, Niall Brophy and O'Reilly. The pity was that they played together only on a few occasions, the last being in 1959. Other outstanding centres were the Boniface brothers from France, Ian Loughland of Scotland and Bruce Robertson of the present New Zealand team.
Gibson of course but apart from him the truly outstanding players in that position were Barry John, Phil Bennet and Richard Sharpe of England. I would also rate Barry McGann very highly. His guile, tactical ability and kicking were matchless. His rugby brain was as good as any I've ever come across. He had the ability to use the ball and pin-point situations better than players a lot faster than he.
What forwards impress you most?
Three New Zealanders spring to mind immediately, Colin Meads, Ken Grey and Wilson Whinery, Mervyn Davies of Wales, Claude Spanghero of France and for Ireland, McBride, Mulcahy, McLaughlin, Murphy, Ken Kennedy and Fergus Slattery.
Did rugby change much at an interrnational level during your 13 years on the team?
Yes, very much so. The change started with Ronnie Dawson right at the beginnning of the 'sixties and was carried on by Ray McLaughlin. This was before there were national coaches and at a time when it was usual for the team to meet the day before an international, have a warm up, a talk and that was that. It was McLaughlin who first introduced strict discipline to the team and a sense of cohesion. He was wrongly dispossessed of the captaincy when things didn't go well in the 1966 season but the initiative he took was carried through.
There is now very much greater prepparation for games, greater discipline and more thought, whereas formerly it was largely a matter of "doing your best for Ireland" and being good losers. Now we have introduced an element of organnisation to our natural aggressiveness.
Do you think there is sufficient preparration and organisation? After all the
Irish team is faring disastrously and there seems to be very little organisation in our out play for example.
I don't see how there could be much more preparation, given the extent of the present commitment to the game on the part of the leading players and officials. There just isn't any more time for preparations. The basic reason for our failures, as I said at the outset, is the fact that we have such a small pool of players to draw from. If we had the likes of Tony Hanahoe, Brian Mullins, Mikey Sheehy, Pat Spillane, John O'Keefe, Jimmy Barry Murphy, Dinnie Allen etc. playing rugby regularly, then we might be able to make significant improvements in our international record, but the fact is that we don't. I'm not saying that all or indeed any of these would necessarily be better than our present players, but if they were in the game then they would help to raise the general standard.
On completing the interview Kiernan remarked: "when I'm suspended the whole Munster team will stand behind me".