Obituary: Tom Kiernan, mastermind of Munster’s victory over All Blacks who later led Ireland to Triple Crown glory and helped create Heineken Cup
Tom Kiernan, born in Cork in 1939 and comfortably one of that city’s greatest sporting figures, was the Ireland full-back for 14 seasons. Dropped for the Five Nations game against Wales in 1973, when one cap short of the world record, he was soon telling his wife Maree: “That’s it, I’m finished — you’ll be seeing a lot more of me.” The opposite turned out to be true: the game was to dominate his life for another 27 years.
Tributes to Kiernan, who died on Thursday, aged 83, have recalled the journalist Edmund van Esbeck’s emphatic appraisal of “a career without equal in the history of Irish rugby”. Those words ring as true today as they did when first written, more than two decades ago.
“Has anyone, across the past century, left a greater legacy to Irish rugby than Tom Kiernan?” his fellow Cork Constitution stalwart Ronan O’Gara asked on Friday. O’Gara has been voted the best player in the history of the Heineken Cup — a tournament Kiernan did more than anyone in European rugby to create.
Kiernan’s accomplishments as player, captain, coach and administrator speak for themselves. Apart from his school team at Presentation College, he captained every team he ever played for: UCC, Cork Con, Munster, Ireland and, in 1968, the British and Irish Lions. The genuinely modest man behind the numerous achievements, though, wasn’t so easily pinned down.
Any full-length account of his life in rugby would have been a doorstopper, but Kiernan played the game in an era when international players didn’t get asked to write autobiographies for the Christmas market. He’d never have done one anyway — he wouldn’t have had the inclination, or the time, or even the belief that he had a story worth putting between covers.
He did, though, agree to be interviewed at considerable length for a book I wrote about the achievement for which he may be best remembered: masterminding Munster’s victory against the All Blacks at Thomond Park in 1978.
It was 2002 and he was a couple of years retired, after leaving a major mark in the administration of European and world rugby. He had helped steer a course through the tumultuous years of early professionalism. Famously, and ferociously, he had taken on the England rugby blazers who’d sold television rights to matches at Twickenham to Sky for a gigantic sum, forcing them to share their windfall with the rest of the Five Nations or find another tournament to play in. “I gave up all my leisure time to the sport,” he said. “Every single day of the week I was up to my neck in it. It was just one bloody thing after another.” But he stuck to the task until peace broke out. The philosophy he lived by for his entire involvement in rugby was that when you’re in, you’re in.
When did it start, I asked him: where did the rugby obsession come from? At his home in the townland of Ballyorban, he pulled out a makeshift scrapbook, carefully kept on the pages of a large purchasing ledger given to him by his father, Michael, a civil engineer who helped construct the runway at Shannon Airport. The newspaper report on the opening page was cut out from the Sunday Independent of March 14, 1948. “Amazing scenes as Irishmen win rugby crown after 49 years”, the headline ran.
The boy who pasted that match report into his scrapbook was nine years old. The Five Nations championship was claimed again the following year, but the glory days for Ireland were short-lived. Thirty-three years would pass before the country won another Triple Crown, with a team coached by Tom Kiernan.
After two or three hours of talking in that first interview — about his childhood on the Western Road, about watching Munster almost beat the All Blacks in 1947 at the Mardyke, on to which the Kiernans’ home backed, about the mother he lost to cancer when just seven — we’d barely scratched the surface.
Two more interviews followed. The last question I asked him before the book was published was how he’d like to be remembered. A more conceited man might have paused to consider his answer, especially when in possession of a track record of outstanding success. Not Kiernan. “Just as somebody who was very keen and involved and who gave it a shot,” he said.
What Kiernan knew about winning, he learned from losing. The rest of that boyhood scrapbook was full of reports about near-misses and last-minute heartbreak. When it was his time to be written about in the papers, the pattern continued. Three times as a player — twice with Munster and once with Ireland — he came within one score of beating New Zealand, only to come up short. As a young coach, he set about preparing a team not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. There was a lot more to that than instilling belief in his players. It meant pushing boundaries and sometimes upsetting people, not least the conservative forces who guided the game in Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s. He was an arch-politician, as wily as they came, and when he wanted something the pressure did not stop until it was yielded.
Not that he would have put it that way. “It was about persuasion, I suppose,” he said. “I was putting pressure on the people who could help to move things along.”
“Nobody gave us a prayer,” the Munster prop forward Gerry McLoughlin said of that day at Thomond Park. “The only man who believed we could win was Tom Kiernan. He could make you believe no team was unbeatable. Not even the All Blacks.”
In 2018, I visited Kiernan again. There was to be an updated edition of the book, Stand Up and Fight. A new chapter would catch up with the key protagonists, 40 years on. He was now almost 80 and as friendly as ever, but frailer than before. His memory was beginning to fail him, but I found he had little appetite anyway for further reminiscences about his time as a player or coach.
Favourite memories? “God, I have no favourite memory. I don’t really dwell on anything.”
The 1982 Triple Crown? “I coached them to a whitewash too, didn’t I?”
Beating the All Blacks? “I don’t think about it. I mean, Jesus, it’s 40 years ago.”
Playing the game? “Nowadays it’s full-time and it’s paid. I wouldn’t have done that. No.”
It was only when Maree produced a cutting from Cork’s Evening Echo of the early 1940s that his eyes lit up. On the page was a picture of the first team he ever played with, as a boy at Cork Constitution. She pointed him out to me, the youngest of them all.
“What photograph is that, Maree?” he asked, from across the room. “Is that the Conettes?”
Without even looking at the picture, he started calling out the names of his fellow players, his memory pin-sharp again. “The Conettes used to play up the Mardyke and my uncle coached them,” he said. “That’s my first sojourn now, what you see in that picture — I was three or four. That was the beginning of everything.”
Tom Kiernan is survived by Maree and their children Cameron, Nicola, Lynn, Julie, James and Tom.