The East Terrace - For the rugby football enthusiast

Stand up and Fight: When Munster Beat the All Blacks

Stand Up and Fight
Stand Up and Fight

Published by Yellow Jersey Press

By Alan English

Despite only a decade passing since rugby shed its badly fitting amateur garments and adopted a more modern cloth, the game has changed more in that time than it had done in a century. Anyone who dips into Alan English’s wonderful account of the day Munster defeated the 1978 All Blacks, especially those readers who have only followed rugby since 1995, will feel they have been transported to not only another age but another sport.

Stand up and Fight is a rare rugby book as it leaves the reader, especially those from outside of Limerick and the Emerald Isle, feeling enriched from having absorbed something more than just a bunch of stories from some old rugby game. Apart from giving a wonderful (but not overly sentimentalised) portrait of the ‘old days’, English manages to entwine a small part of Limerick’s social history and culture into the account of that great day without disrupting the smooth flow of the central plot.

The main bulk of the narrative and first-hand reports come from the coach of Munster, Tom Kiernan, and the charismatic Munster prop Gerry McLoughlin. McLoughlin in particular is fascinating to read. A guy who could probably regale you with stories and slices of wisdom for as long as his vociebox held out. His view on scrummaging is typical of his style:

“Whoever says scrummaging is an eight-man effort is a liar. For a start, the hooker doesn’t worry about the props. You should never be hoping for too much from your back row either. You wouldn’t want to rely on them. In the Munster team that day I wouldn’t say Donal Spring ever broke his back with a push, you had Colm Tucker wanting to carry the ball and Christy Cantillon flying off looking for fucking tries. The last thing on their mind was scrummaging. All they wanted to do was get out”

Tom Kiernan too is a fascinating character, albeit in a different way. A visionary in many ways he was also a supreme diplomat. The book details his ongoing, but usually triumphant, battles with the old-fashioned blazers than ran Munster rugby in those days. One of the most interesting stories here is that Kiernan held a video session of the All Blacks so his team could see what they were up against. However run of the mill such analysis seems now, it must be remembered these were more innocent times. Indeed, until that session some of the players had never even seen a video machine before. Irish hero Tony Ward admits to sneaking out of the session as the video was scaring the life out of him:

“Jesus, I was petrified. That night when Kiernan showed us the video, the question running through my mind was: ‘Do we have the right to be on the same pitch as these guys?’

However, the book is not simply based on accounts and details from the Irish side. English makes great use of various Kiwi sources, particularly wing Stu Wilson and All Black legend Graham Mourie. Wilson is refreshingly honest about his bad experiences of the day, notably being on the receiving end of some thunderous tackling from Munster’s Seamus Dennison.

Another aspect which gives the book such strength is that there exists almost no video footage of the game itself. Indeed, the few minutes that does exist is of such poor quality as to be almost useless. RTE, the national channel of Ireland did not deem the game worthy of full coverage such was the likelihood of a crushing Munster defeat. This has led to the game often being refereed to as the ‘last great folk memory’ in Ireland. It also means the book can recreate - and perhaps through the fog of memory enhance and romanticise- the events of the day and allow the reader to conjure up their own images. There are no television pictures burned into the reader’s subconscious contradicting the printed word. It is a factor that sport books on modern triumphs, England’s World Cup win for example, cannot possess.

The first two-thirds of the book are spent painting portraits of the places, players and characters that surrounded the match. This allows the reader to identify with the central protagonists and get a feel for just exactly how much these tour games meant to local communities - and the wider rugby world - in days gone by

It is a tribute to Alan English that, despite the fact we all know the outcome of the game, the final chapters describing the match in detailed testimonies from players and witnesses are tense affairs. The pace and tone of the book have been judged well enough to leave the reader desperate to find out if Munster can actually win - even if we are so obviously aware they do.

For all the wonders of the modern era and the many positive changes it produced, it is hard not to pine, more than a little, for days like October 31st 1978. Stand up and Fight is highly recommended, intelligent reading.