Monday 22 January 2018

'They did not know what had hit them' - Exclusive extract from Tony Ward's autobiography

In 1978, out-half Tony Ward was the new star of Irish rugby, having won his first cap for Ireland. That autumn the young player faced his sternest test with Munster as they took on the mighty All Blacks. No Irish team had ever beaten New Zealand. In this extract from his new autobiography, he tells the story of the proudest day of his career

‘Twelve Feet Tall’ is published by Simon & Schusteron November 1 Tony Ward will be signing his book at Eason, Patrick Street, Cork, at 1.0 on November 28, and Eason Dundrum Town Centre at 1.0 on December 5
‘Twelve Feet Tall’ is published by Simon & Schusteron November 1 Tony Ward will be signing his book at Eason, Patrick Street, Cork, at 1.0 on November 28, and Eason Dundrum Town Centre at 1.0 on December 5
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Tuesday, October 31, 1978. Halloween. It was the day when one of the most famous moments, not just in Irish rugby, but in Irish sporting history was delivered. How privileged and proud I feel to have been a part of it. I lined out with a band of brothers against a merciless outfit of grim reapers clad in black.

Everyone expected us to be slaughtered.

Very few, if any, gave Munster a chance of beating the mighty All Blacks. And they were truly awesome. On their tour of Ireland and England, New Zealand laid waste to every team who strayed into their path.

Munster's coach was Tom Kiernan. He had an iron will and a steely-eyed determination which transmitted itself to the players.

So much so that they were willing to die for him and the red jersey against the All Blacks. In sport there are certain individuals who elicit that response and Kiernan was one of them.

Kiernan stressed how he wanted to see how good the Kiwis were going backwards. So the logical plan was for me to turn them around and reverse the pressure when putting the ball in behind them.

The crowd crammed into Thomond Park. New Zealand performed their pre-match haka. Perhaps they thought we were fearful staring at them, but I like to think we were looking with pride in our eyes to the glorious backdrop of the Clare Hills.

We provided the usual welcome for overseas visitors to our pitch by way of a standard 'Garryowen'. The crowd were up for it, and so were we. More to the point - from Ginger McLoughlin at loosehead prop to Donal Spring wearing number eight - our pack was charged and angry. All they needed was the carrot. That role was mine.

Our centre Seamus Dennison broke the opposition's attack with his predetermined tackle on Stu Wilson in a game-defining moment.

'Shay' was probably the smallest and lightest man on the pitch.

But with that tackle he set the tone. It united crowd and players as one. The umbilical cord between terrace and pitch was connected as tightly as it had ever been. When we saw that happen, we realised the extent to which we were all prepared to go. We would fight to the bitter end for each other.

To the letter of the Kiernan law, handed down to me before the game, I chipped delicately over the top of All Black heads in the eleventh minute.

It was risky. The bounce could have gone either way, but Jimmy Bowen judged it beautifully, gathered at full tilt and made a sharp and incisive run. As he was felled, he fed Christy Cantillon who crossed the Promised Land at the Ballynanty end. The lush green grass right next to the white posts had been firmly stamped in red: try!

Clenched fists, screaming, wild faces, mad and angry delight - how dare you doubt us. We are Munster. This is our patch. It is a field we cherish, and like 'Bull McCabe' we have had blood on our hands scratching rocks from rugged earth. We will die here.

The great roars from the crowd could be heard for miles. As they surged forward to bellow their approval, the decibels got louder. It must have frightened the life out of our foe. The 'invincibles' were rattled.

I kicked the conversion with ease, 6-0. New Zealand now knew they were in a war zone. We could sense their unease.

They did not know what had hit them. They were losing their trademark composure and were penalised in the 17th minute for indiscriminate use of the boot.

My resulting penalty attempt (surprisingly the only one for either side in the entire game) fell short. However, the pressure was building and unbelievably my effort was knocked on by Brian McKechnie.

From our scrum, Donal Canniffe teed it up and this time I made no mistake. My drop goal made it 9-0.

Minutes later Welsh referee Coris Thomas blew for half-time.

We gathered in a passionate but euphoric huddle in front of the main stand. In those days rugby teams did not leave the pitch.

Less than 50 metres away we knew what was being said among the opposition. Donal Canniffe left us in no doubt as to what they were discussing. New Zealand's pride had to be restored and they would throw everything at us from the restart.

We would have to meet that inevitable frenzy head on.

They duly battered us in the opening minutes after the break.

The siege of Limerick took on a whole new meaning. In contrast to the first half, where we had a right go on the offensive, we found ourselves defending for our lives. The pressure exerted by the All Blacks was enormous. We stood tall. We stood strong.

The men from the southern hemisphere were met with crunching defensive tackles the like of which they had never known before from an Irish team. Seamus Dennison, centre Greg Barrett and wing-forward Colm Tucker were nothing short of heroic. But how long could it last?

As the minutes ticked by and the hearts and minds of the crowd began to feel for us, they echoed their emotions in one collective and loud lilting chant: 'MUNNN-STERRRRRR . . . MUNNN-STERRRRRR . . . MUNNN-STERRRRRR'.

We all felt 12 feet tall. It lifted us and spurred us on. More than that, it raised the hairs on the back of my neck as I am sure it did for the rest of the team. I then helped alleviate the pressure by dropping another goal, this time from a Tucker pass, and ultimately we held out to win. Final score: 12-0.

We became the first team from Ireland to inflict defeat on the All Blacks. We were ecstatic. Everyone went berserk. Even now, words cannot adequately describe the immense importance and significance of that game.

They say that actions speak louder than words and perhaps one moment afterwards sums up perfectly what I am trying to say. Even though we left the pitch in such a state of unbelievable bliss, the crowd stayed on. Not only that, but they demanded that we come back out on to the pitch.

It was the only time I was central to a sporting event culminating in mature adults openly crying. To be able to say you were there was, and is, great, but being at the heart of the action was even greater again. The official attendance was given out as 12,000, but to this day hundreds of thousands still claim to have been there.

There was a sad postscript to the victory when our captain, Donal Canniffe, later received the tragic news that his father had dropped dead. Dan Canniffe collapsed and died in Cork while listening to the game. At the post-match dinner in the Limerick Inn, a minute's silence was observed in memory of Donal's father. Vice-captain Pat Whelan stood in for our absent leader, who had obviously returned to be with his grieving family.

Later, a surprise telegram was read to us. It was sent by one of Munster's most famous sons, the legendary film actor Richard Harris. A former Crescent schoolboy, Richard played rugby in the province as a young man and to a fairly high standard.

His words went something like this: 'I'm away on set in South Africa and I just want you to know how thrilled I am and that every newspaper out here has reported your magnificent achievement. I have been on the dry now for ten months but I cannot think of a better excuse to have a drop. I rang Richard Burton [the Welsh actor who was married to Elizabeth Taylor] and he was also delighted. But I felt there was a tinge of jealousy in his voice!'

To hear those words just summed up the worldwide stir we created. That was one of the greatest days of my life. It was also, and without any doubt, the highlight of my rugby career.

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