Gentle giant leaves an enduring legacy
I played against Moss Keane a few times over the years and had become reasonably familiar with him, an immensely strong opponent on the field, and wonderful company in the bar afterwards.
Nothing, however, prepared me for the experience of my first 'final trial' for Ireland in 1980 when, for the first time, I had Moss as my partner in the second-row, on the 'probables' as they were so quaintly entitled. Back then, incredible as it may seem now, the teams came together on the morning of the game, without any preparation -- I therefore had little advance warning of the good fortune that was about to befall me.
The first scrum came after a couple of minutes. I anxiously took my position, waiting for my partner, hoping against hope that I wouldn't be exposed as a total weakling. I needn't have worried. Suddenly this massive presence took its place alongside me, and an arm was swung across my back for binding purposes the likes of which I'd never experienced -- my best attempt at a description is that it was akin to the jib of a medium-sized JCB, with the hand performing a passable imitation of the bucket!
Suitably reassured that I'd be cut a bit of slack in my scrummaging duties, I was encouraged to apply a slightly bigger effort to the other parts of my game. As always in those trials, these mainly involved whatever was going on in front of the committee box, where the selectors were seated. We duly won the game, and I managed to get the nod for the first international of the season, and my first cap -- thanks, Moss.
His pathway from the unlikely starting point in the village of Currow in 1948 to a nationally-mourned sporting icon in 2010 appears to have been somewhat unconventional; as with the man himself appearances can be highly deceptive. Moss came to rugby late, following the removal of the GAA's ban on foreign games in 1971, having won a coveted Sigerson Cup with UCC and represented Kerry under 21s; within 12 months, he was facing the All Blacks in the red of Munster, the first of three such occasions on which he would do so.
There followed one of the longest and most distinguished careers in Irish rugby, winning 51 caps in an international career spanning 11 years from 1974 to 1984. To put that in context, he was only the third Irish forward, after his great friends Willie John McBride and Fergus Slattery, to achieve a half-century of international caps. He also represented the Lions in 1977, one of only four Irishmen to do so that year (Mike Gibson, Phil Orr and Willie Duggan being the others), and in 1978 he enjoyed one of his greatest moments as the cornerstone of the Munster team which overcame the All Blacks. Membership of the 1982 Triple Crown-winning team was the other high point of a magnificent representative career.
In parallel, he was also enjoying a great career at club level with Lansdowne, where, in conjunction with such as the Spring brothers, Dick and Donal, the other Mike Gibson, Donal Canniffe and Mickey Quinn among others, they provided one of the most successful club teams in memory.
Moss was undoubtedly one of the more gentle of the rugby species of physical giant. The bulwark of packs with UCC, Lansdowne, Munster and Ireland, he not only provided the physical foundation on which those teams were built, but was the fulcrum of most of the enjoyment within the groups.
Moss was never one for hyperbole -- he was much too articulate -- nor would he appreciate excessive or gushing tributes. Rarely comfortable in the limelight, in private he nonetheless exuded personality, humour, and an appetite for life in all its guises. He simply loved people, and people loved him in return. Anyone lucky enough to have played with or against him experienced the special warmth he reserved for playing colleagues, and those who knew him well speak with awe of his deep font of generosity and human respect for all with whom he came in contact, regardless of class or creed.
Moss epitomised life to the extent that, while his passing wasn't unexpected, it will be difficult to accept that his rich Kerry brogue is no more -- silence and Moss never made for easy bedfellows. The void will never be filled, the vacuum will always remain, especially so for his wife Anne and daughters Sarah and Anne Marie.
They might, however, draw some consolation from the knowledge that their beloved Moss has woven his wonderfully unique personality into the fabric of a nation in which he took great pride and which he served with great dedication for almost 40 years as a highly-respected public servant; that nation is very much the better for his presence, and very much the poorer for his passing.