The game that time remembered

Thirty years on and that day Munster beat the mighty All Blacks is still fondly remembered.

October 31, 1978

The day that still beams as a watershed chapter in the story that is Munster rugby. It was 80 minutes in time when history was written and legends were born on the hallowed Thomond Park turf, the day when 15 men in red defeated the mighty All Blacks.

Next Tuesday, New Zealand return to the spiritual home of Munster rugby for the official opening of the new Thomond Park stadium. It will be a night to reflect just how far this sporting journey has travelled, to remember the history on which the stadium stands and to remember some of those men on whose backs the Munster tradition was carried for a time.

All this time later those 15 players who lined out that Tuesday in 1978 remain part of the only Irish side to taste victory against the standard bearers of international rugby. Although, the official capacity of the ground had been 12,000 at the time, it has been said that 100,000 people claim to have been present to witness that celebrated victory.

Nevertheless, one man they all remember is Seamus Dennison. Seamus Dennison and the famous tackle.

At the time Dennison, a secondary school teacher, was a veteran of the Munster side and plied his rugby trade as a centre on the celebrated Garryowen team of the 1970s. He had a handful of Irish caps to his name and had been on the Munster side that drew 3-3 with the All Blacks in 1973. Thirty years on and he still expresses his wonder at how the triumph in 1978 is still kept in mind.

“Nobody took any notice of it for about the first 20 years, and it has only really got the publicity with the Munster sides that came through in the Heineken Cup. It is definitely very nice from our point of view, we have got good mileage out of it but if you were to ask us 30 years ago would it still be remembered the answer would be no.”

“I couldn’t say fellas were expecting to win, you couldn’t, not against the All-Blacks. Nobody would have talked about it or thought about it from that point of view, but at the same time we weren’t expecting to lose either.


In the run up to the game, the Munster coach Tom Kiernan took his side to London to play two warm up games in preparation for the visit of New Zealand. In the first game the Irish side lost heavily to Middlesex, while in the second contest Kiernan’s team drew with a London-Irish selection. Dennison says that as a result of that trip and the following training sessions, Munster were better prepared for the All Blacks than they had been at any time before that, but that is not to say that winning was in any way expected.

“There was always a tradition in Munster that they would always give a great account of themselves against any touring side no matter where they were from. The All-Blacks were of course like the Brazil of soccer. They were the be all and end all. We knew from tradition and it was only from tradition that we weren’t going to be that far away. We were hoping we would win but everybody would have been happy if we put up a good performance and weren’t hockeyed altogether. So from that point of view everybody was thrilled.”

“We were quite fit, fitter than any Munster team ever had been. With a lot of the touring sides, it was in the last 20 minutes that they would catch you, but we were fit enough to last the match, irrespective of what the score was.

“We went on tour that year as part of our preparation and I think it was at the instigation of Tom Kiernan that it happened. We would have been training with our own clubs two nights a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and every Wednesday night we went to Fermoy to train.

“At that time there was a big divide between Limerick and Cork and they were all trying to best one another. The Cork crowd wouldn’t go to Limerick and the Limerick crowd wouldn’t go to Cork, so we finished up in Fermoy, which was a pure kip of a place at the time. I have been down there recently and they have a gorgeous set up down there, but at the time we used to tog out in the local hotel and drive up to what was an old army barracks and we‘d train inside in that.

“Certainly the modern professional guy would turn their heads at this thing if the saw it. The grass was well long and as the nights became longer, the car lights would be around the edge shining in to light up this field. It was a handy place if you were getting tired to fall down in the long grass and not be missed when we were doing the laps and that was known to have happened.”

That tackle

The team stayed in Jury’s Hotel on the Ennis Road the night before the game. Seamus admits to not having much of a recollection of that morning, but remembers the players arrived to the game in their own cars and parked out the front of the stadium.

On the wing for the visitors that day was Stu Wilson, who went on the score 50 tries for the All Blacks and for several years held the record for the most New Zealand test tries. He was 23 at the time and five minutes into the game, Stu came off his berth on the right wing in a set piece move that saw him rejoin the line through the centre.

What happened next came the moment that has since been described by the referee that day, Corrie Thomas (*): ” It was the most incredible tackle I ever saw in 17 years as a referee. Wilson came through at a hundred miles an hour on a switch ball and it was literally as if he had run into a brick wall… He collapsed in a heap… I looked around and every Munster player had grown 12 inches. You could sense it, you really could. I’m not being romantically reflective; it was a hard-nosed observation I made at the time… I thought, ‘We’re in for a game today.’ In that one tackle, Seamus Dennison confirmed the reality to the Munster team, the reality that they could win.”

When put to the former Munster centre of Thomas’s description of the tackle, Dennison laughs before modestly stating, “I wouldn’t quite go that far.” For him, the story needs to put it into context.

“Keep in mind it was 1978 and the technology of DVDs was not available at that time. Another thing that was not available was the BBC on the west coast of the country. ‘Rugby Special’ was a BBC programme that went out every Sunday evening and Tommy Kiernan got a friend of his over in London to tape snippets of the four previous matches that the All-Blacks had played in and send it over to him.

“The difficulty once the tape arrived was to be able to get some place to play the cassette. Tommy found some warehouse down the Dock Road, that had a VCR player and we were all brought down to watch it on the evening before the game. And in each of the matches it was noticeable that in a particular part of the field, they did a move which was to bring the blindside winger into the backline, outside the outhalf. Each time they did it, Wilson who was a world-class winger, an absolute flyer, would go through and they scored. I picked up on this and we were conscious that it might happen again the following day.

“In the course of the match sure enough, they got a line-out just around our 10 yard line and it was just where they did this move. You could see their outhalf Dunne making some kind of communication with Wilson and myself and Greg Barrett outside me got ourselves organised. Sure enough, Wilson came in, thought he had a free run and I happened to be there to run into him. At the time I didn’t see it as being a major turning point in the game but a lot of people have said afterwards that it was a statement of intent. I suppose it was a good old clatter alright.”

What happened soon after is etched into Munster rugby folklore. Ten minutes in, Munster gained possession from the lineout and scrum half Donal Canniffe fed Tony Ward with a pass. In his own half, Ward sent a cross-field chip and the ball bounced waist high for Jimmy Bowen who ran through a gap at full speed. Ten yards from the line, Bowen cut back inside and fed the oncoming Christy Cantillon, who went over for a try. Ward scored the conversion and later in the half added a drop goal as Munster took a 9-0 lead heading into the break.

Dennison recalls some of the incidents from that game. “I remember there was a period of fierce pressure toward the end of the first half and Greg Barrett made a fabulous clearance. I remember it distinctly. They had kicked the ball in behind our scrum and Barrett covered back, picked it up in one hand and rooted it down the field. They knew at nine points down that they needed a score before half time and were going helter skelter for it. That kick was a huge breather for us because we finished back up on the half way line again from virtually our own line.”

“In the second half, I remember two great tackles in the same corner of the pitch from Larry and Moss. Then well into the match, Wardy kicked the ball up to the end of the field and the ball went over their line and Wilson made a mistake. There is a video clip of it but you can’t see me, but I was there just outside the shot of the camera and I was roaring ‘I’ll take him on the left and you take him on the right’ and there was no one else there, only myself.

“I feel he panicked. He slipped but still had loads of time to get up with the ball and run back at us, but didn’t he touch the ball down for a 22 drop out. Jesus, I was delighted. We stayed up there for a few minutes and Tony kicked another drop goal. It was 12-0 and at that stage we knew we were home and dry.

After the match

“When the final whistle went I went up to shake hands with the fella I was marking and I can never remember getting there because the crowd just swallowed the whole lot of us up. It was just bedlam.

“The biggest thing after the match was the realisation that Donal Canniffe’s father died. Most of the fellas inside wouldn’t have known and it was only on our way out, that we all realised that Donal was heading home to Cork. He was our captain at the time, so it was very sad for him at that particular time. I think we went back to the hotel after that and then it was everyman for himself. There was a do in the Limerick Inn that night and again different to nowadays there was no wives or girlfriends. It was just the teams and I went to work the next day.”

Seamus Dennison and his team-mates on that memorable day will be in Thomond Park next Tuesday as the current All Blacks return to the scene of that famous battle. It is a fixture that will excite the mind and warm the heart of every supporter of the current Munster side.

For Seamus, having represented the famous red is something he holds with particular pride. “I loved playing for Munster and I played for Munster for the best part of 10 years. Everyone had the same sense of parochialism and everybody that played was the same and felt the same. You looked up to the stand and you saw your own friends out there and you were playing for them, you were playing for your club and your province and I always enjoyed playing for Munster, more so than playing for anyone else”

* Extract from ‘Stand up and Fight: When Munster Beat the All Blacks’ by Alan English. Published by Yellow Jersey Press.



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One Response to “The game that time remembered”

  1. KP (New Zealand) Says:

    Congratulations to the Munster team for a truly entertaining game this morning against the All Blacks.

    This is exactly why there should be more non-test games played on oversea tours.

    Thank you Munster

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