So much to write about. So much to reflect upon. So much to say about this magnificently reconstituted stadium. So much to savour after experiencing one of the greatest Irish sporting occasions of recent times.
So much to say about the heart on sleeve passion that the men in red demonstrated against the mighty All Blacks.
So much to say about a night which lifted the gloom that has engulfed a city, province and nation following the murder of a young man who would have savoured a night like this.
The latest meeting of Munster and New Zealand in the remoulded Thomond Park truly was something else.
A week may have passed since red so memorably encountered black yet the heart rate still increases when recalling this stirring, inspiring, barnstorming Limerick night.
A little over a decade ago, anyone who suggested that a rugby match played in Ireland on a Tuesday evening would attract over a million TV viewers would have been tracked by the white coat brigade.
But rugby today, and Munster rugby in particular, is amongst the sexiest of sexy stuff.
Now there’s little doubt that the level of bandwagon-hopping aboard the Munster phenomenon has been indisputably steep.
But to the bullhorners who continue to harp on about this, two things. One: so what? People coming together to have a bit of well-behaved and highly spirited craic to cheer on a team cannot be a bad thing, especially in these gloomy economic times.
Two: when is the last time a National Hurling League venue had a ‘sold out’ sign in Waterford, Cork or Kilkenny for that matter?
When it comes to bandwagons, given the disparity between GAA League and Championship attendances, no-one should direct fingers towards fans of ‘foreign’ games when identifying Irish sporting wagon hoppers. Right then, mini-rant over.
Back to the match, or, to be more precise, what transpired immediately before kick-off, which set the tone for an unforgettable night.
During many a rugby commentary, the legendary Bill McLaren suggested a ball punted upward might return to terra firma with snow atop it.
For once, anyone thinking along similar lines to the great Scot had a case on their hands as the match ball was spectacularly dropped into Thomond Park via an Air Corps helicopter.
The oval was duly handed over to Donal Canniffe, the captain of the famous Munster team of 1978, who held it aloft to a tremendous ovation from the 26,000-strong crowd.
The fans, already in fine voice thanks to the lyrical contributions of Cara O’Sullivan and the Munster Choir (formed by the Munster Rugby Supporters Club) was buzzing.
The levels of electricity being generated inside the stadium would surely have kept the city, let alone the Christmas Tree situated in the middle of the River Shannon, lit for a couple of years.
All in all, it was difficult to avoid the sense that there was something special in the air, as the deep green chopper blended back into the night sky.
Next up, the men of ’78 were asked to rise from their West Stand seats and be recognised. Fourteen of them did so, waving to the acclaim of the raucous Thomond Park audience.
Playmaker Tony Ward wasn’t among them, given his co-commentating perch at the back of the opposing East Stand alongside RTE’s Ryle Nugent. To have all the starting players from three decades ago present and accounted at so great an occasion as this was terrific.
And here listed for the record are: Larry Moloney, Moss Finn, Seamus Dennison, Greg Barrett, Jimmy Bowen, Tony Ward, Donal Canniffe, Gerry McLoughlin, Pat Whelan, Les White, Moss Keane, Brendan Foley, Christy Cantillon, Donal Spring and Colin Tucker. Heroes all.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen, happy to be diverted from the problems stacking up on his desk, did his unveiling gig to polite applause. The new Thomond Park was now officially open.
The teams then took the pitch to a
magnificent din and, as rumoured, Munster’s New Zealand contingent broke from the standing team line to perform their native land’s call to war. It was a stirring, captivating, spectacular sight.
Forward stepped Rua Tipoki, Doug Howlett, Lifeimi ‘Larry Murphy’ Mafi and Jeremy Manning, the latter sporting the sort of facial hair that Wyatt Earp would have tipped his ten gallon towards.
Unable to hear each other such were the mounting decibel levels inside this great sporting cathedral, the Kiwi quartet performed a once in a lifetime Haka. Never has this great Maori tradition carried such resonance on a foreign shore.
And then it was the turn of the All Blacks, led by captain Piri Weepu, to accept and respond to the challenge laid down by their countrymen across the halfway line.
And again, we were treated to something unprecedented: a Haka performed in complete silence, the bellows of the New Zealanders reverberating around the stadium by virtue of the microphones at their feet.
Be you from Waterford or Waikato, Otago or Oola, the South Island or South Lodge, it was hard to avoid the sentiment that this was a very special moment in the union game’s history.
That the wonderful formalities and outstanding battle cries were succeeded by a match of magnificent quality was entirely in keeping with the sense of occasion that oozed through this grandest of grand openings.
There was so much to enjoy during a match that never lost its tempo, despite players on both teams taking to the deck for a breather under the pretence of magic sponge requirement.
The abrasiveness of the Munster challenge was quickly established: Peter Stringer and Paul Warwick pulled their opposing half-backs one way and then the other.
Tight-head prop Timmy Ryan had enjoyed only a few minutes here and there for Munster prior to facing the All Blacks. You’d never have thought it as the Cork Con man produced the best 40 minutes of a career largely played out in the AIL to date.
Ryan’s brawn was instrumental in turning the scrum which led to Murphy’s try and he left the fray at the break with his head held high. But he wasn’t the only revelation of the night.
In the number eight slot (having started on the blind side) Dolphin’s James Coughlan produced an all-tackling, gain-line breaking display of immense quality.
While the outstanding Kiwi ‘uimhir a hocht’ Liam Messam picked up the man of the match gong, Coughlan surely featured in the shake-up for that prize.
Slotting into his natural domain after Denis Leamy’s injury-forced withdrawal, Coughlan was magnificent, suggesting that our senior league’s players deserve more respect than what’s been offered from on high these past few years.
And what of Billy Holland, Leamy’s replacement, who did so brilliantly in what was only his fourth appearance for the province? Son of ex-Munster manager Jerry, Holland ploughed into the thick of things time and time again.
To describe these players as ‘second string’ does them the greatest of disservices as, to a man, they outstandingly rose to the occasion, honouring the red jersey’s great legacy.
Led brilliantly by Mick O’Driscoll, Munster’s rookies and veterans rattled the All Blacks to their core and were just four minutes from joining the immortals of ’78.
Alas, up stepped the ever dangerous Joe Rokocoko, who switched wings during the ultra-attritional second half, crossing the host’s whitewash to deny theatre goers a sequel to ‘Alone it Stands’.
A few blinks later, the less than popular referee Roman Poite blew his whistle to end what Tony Ward justly described as “a celebration of rugby”.
Both teams, weary from hit after hit returned to the paddock to deserved hearty applause and hollering as ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was given one more passionate blast from an enthralled attendance.
This was a night when nobody was hurrying towards the exits. This was a night which will be lovingly recalled by anyone who loves honesty, commitment and spirit from sportsmen.
This was a night when journalists could applaud in the press box and not feel odd about it. For this was something special.
An anecdote from a great rugby man, Sean Meade of Carrick-on-Suir, seemed the only appropriate way to draw this particular piece to a close.
“I count myself incredibly lucky to have been to both the ’78 match and last Tuesday’s match, which was full of exceptional, magical rugby. I’m an avid collector of rugby memorabilia and this particular match got me thinking about a tie handed to me by a great friend of mine after Munster’s win 30 years ago.
“A few weeks later, we were talking about the match and with him knowing me the way he did, he handed me a tie with the crests of both teams on it, with the lettering ‘1978, 12-0′ stitched onto it. He told me he got his hands on it just after the game and when he handed it to me, it was still in its cellophane.”
Sadly, the tie presenter in question, Johnny Drohan, a man who spent many a bob and trod many a path in Munster’s cause long before it was fashionable to do so, passed away on March 16th.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that Johnny was kicking every ball and making every tackle with the lads in Thomond Park,” added Sean. “By Jesus, it was, in every possible sense, Johnny’s sort of night.”
That it most certainly was.