The big interview: Despite enjoying great success with Munster and Ireland, Moss Finn is happy to mind his own corner

The big interview: Despite enjoying great success with Munster and Ireland, Moss Finn is happy to mind his own corner
Ireland and Munster rugby hero Moss Finn. Picture: Jim Coughlan

DESPITE being a former Irish international and starter in one of Munster’s most famous victories, Moss Finn doesn’t court the limelight.

It took a lot of convincing to persuade the affable but humble 60-year-old to sit down for a chat. While he does appear as a guest analyst on Red FM’s Big Red Bench on occasion, Finn isn’t a fan of interviews or talking about his own exploits.

And there is plenty of ground to cover. He has Junior Cup and Senior Cup medals from his time as a Pres boy in the 1970s, before highly-successful stints in the colours of UCC and Cork Con — as well as a year with London Irish. Whether at out-half or on the wing, he contributed to what was a golden age for the club game in Ireland.

He played his part in the long-since immortalised Munster win over the All Blacks in 1978, during his 14-season run pulling on the red jersey, and he was a Triple Crown-winner with Ireland in 1982.

Moss Finn on Ireland duty.
Moss Finn on Ireland duty.

On top of that, Finn is part of the fabric of the city, as Finn’s Corner — a sports, school uniform and catering clothing shop — which he runs with his brother Will, has been in the family since 1878. Their late father Con was a league medallist with Cork Constitution 78 years ago, cementing the sporting link, while the building itself once hosted Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell, as he delivered an oration to the masses on the Grand Parade.

Though a reticent interviewee, Finn deserves a place in Cork rugby folklore. He’s more comfortable discussing his respect for the modern Munster men, from the longevity and consistency of Ronan O’Gara and Donncha O’Callaghan to the improvisational brilliance of Simon Zebo and the spirit of Peter O’Mahony, than himself. Still his is a tale worth recounting.

“I would have been a GAA man when I was young. I was in national school in Glasheen and we got to the final in Cork. Myself and Johnny Crowley were in midfield and Tadhg O’Reilly was at centre-forward.”

Crowley would progress to All- Ireland hurling glory with Cork and later serve as a selector for the Rebels. O’Reilly was a classy footballer with the Barrs and later Ballincollig, and most importantly supplied the pass to Tadhg Óg Murphy that defeated Kerry at the death in the 1983 Munster final in rain-soaked Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“Johnny could kick the ball from here to America. He was great. Tadhg was a fine footballer too. Both of those lads were good enough to play rugby at a high level.

“My father sent me to Pres though and they went to Spioraid Naomh. I’d have stuck with the GAA with Bishopstown if it wasn’t for rugby.”

Duhallow forward Niall O'Connor wins the ball from the Barrs' John Myler and Tadhg O'Reilly in the 1982 county final.
Duhallow forward Niall O'Connor wins the ball from the Barrs' John Myler and Tadhg O'Reilly in the 1982 county final.

Finn would regularly cross paths with Crowley of course, but also came across O’Reilly in Ballincollig colours.

“Tadhg won an AOH Cup final for Ballincollig against Douglas Hall but only after a replay. They drew the first day and John Dwyer (who would be familiar to Leesiders for working in Finn’s Corner) actually saved a penalty from Tadhg in that drawn game.”

You’d imagine if Finn had concentrated on Gaelic football he’d have prospered. Not that he’d admit it.

Speed was a huge asset of the 60-year-old’s. He ran for Leevale as a juvenile, and while he was an out-half in his teens, his all-round ability made him a vital cog for Pres teams.

“We won the Junior Cup and the Senior Cup in my time in Pres. Jimmy Bowen, who made that break against the All Blacks, for that try in ’78, and Bryan Clifford, who did the same for Ireland in the Olympics in 1972, would have been the best-known players after.”

Finn idolised Barry McGann, a graduate from the famed Pres production line. McGann infamously kicked a conversion for Ireland that would have beaten the All Blacks in 1973, only for the ref to deem it wide, and was also a serious soccer player, with Shels and Ireland.

“The god in my history would have been Barry McGann. I always looked up to him. He played senior as a junior.”

What Finn omits is that he himself also played senior for Pres as a junior. He scoffs at any comparison.

“McGann was the best of them all, for me. Just a natural. He played soccer with Shelbourne, Man United, too. I remember he was a guest for Man United, against a Cork select, at Flower Lodge. He was so good at inside left, that Matt Busby wanted to bring him to England. His father wouldn’t allow it.

“In 1970, Wales were in Dublin. There had been a bit of hassle the year before, but, with the first ball, McGann tackled Barry John, the Irish pack went over him, and he didn’t kick a ball for the rest of the match. Ireland won and McGann kicked a drop goal. He probably should have gone with the Lions after, though Gibson went, instead.”

PBC winners of Munster Senior Schools Soccer Cup 1974. Back: Ian Shorten, Colm Moore, Jimmy Bowen, Billy Kelleher, Jerry Owens, Barry Jones, Moss Finn. Front: Donie O'Sullivan, Harry McSweeny, Richy Noonan, Mickey O'Sullivan.
PBC winners of Munster Senior Schools Soccer Cup 1974. Back: Ian Shorten, Colm Moore, Jimmy Bowen, Billy Kelleher, Jerry Owens, Barry Jones, Moss Finn. Front: Donie O'Sullivan, Harry McSweeny, Richy Noonan, Mickey O'Sullivan.

Finn might have played in a star-studded PBC line-up — “there were better players from that era in Christians, probably, (Donal) Lenihan, Jerry Holland” — but his prowess meant he was welcomed with open arms at UCC.

“We’d a massive rivalry and then we went into college playing together.”

Before that, Finn, along with Jimmy Bowen, who would also start against the All Blacks in 1978, and Brian Clifford, represented Pres in the first-ever Irish schools team, in 1975, against England, in a friendly in Dublin. The underage structure for Irish players wasn’t developed to any degree, though there were U20 and U23 teams, which is where college was critical.

“Players are better treated now, but there’s an element of being spoiled, too. There’s a fine line. A bit of hardship does build character.

“When we went to college, we’d no coaches. We did it all ourselves. I started a minor A match against Transport, down the Mardyke, and they’d ate you. And you need matches, and tough matches.

“I played senior in my first year at UCC. We won the Munster Senior Cup, which was a huge thing then. I played for Munster, then, in my second year, and for 14 seasons after, ’76 to ’89. Now, there were only three or four matches a year, really. Munster matches were Irish trials, effectively.”

Before the legendary New Zealand clash in ’78, Finn was in line to make his Irish debut. When that didn’t come to pass, he made his international bow in 1979, against England.

Injury, to the shoulder rather than the hamstrings that plagued him after, cut it short and it was three years before the opportunity would come again.

“I was picked in ’77 to play for Ireland, but I had to pull out. 1979 was my first cap and I got injured after 10 minutes. I got a pass from Dick Spring, the Tánaiste, and I always said to him, afterwards, it was a hospital pass!

“Tony Bond tackled me and I landed on the point of my shoulder and I didn’t play for Ireland for three years after. To this day, I can’t sleep on that shoulder.

“Tommy Kiernan believed in me. He always did and he called me back and we won the Triple Crown. I’d 14 caps, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but look, Ollie Campbell only had 20. The same opportunities weren’t there. In 1985, I was sub against England and I was picked against France, but I couldn’t play because of shingles.”

The Ireland team that played England in 1983. Included are Cork players Donal Linehan, fourth from left, back row and in front row, Michael Kiernan, third from left and Moss Finn, third from right.
The Ireland team that played England in 1983. Included are Cork players Donal Linehan, fourth from left, back row and in front row, Michael Kiernan, third from left and Moss Finn, third from right.

In between the false dawn of ’79, against England, and the halcyon days of ’82, there was a detour to London. Patrick Parfrey — now a renowned physician and the president of Canadian rugby, having been based in north America since 1982 — persuaded him to join London Irish.

“Pat Parfrey was on the UCC Munster Senior Cup team and he went to London and coached London Irish. I was out-half, at that stage. They had got to the John Player Cup final, which was huge, and Pat got on to me, as I’d just finished my H-Dip in UCC. I did a post-graduate degree in PE, then, in London.”

Though the ambition had been to lift the John Player Cup, London Irish fell short in the quarter-final stage.

“It was a great experience. We lost in the quarter-final, to Rossland Park. They had a number-eight, Andy Ripley. He was an England player and a complete number-eight. Phil Blakery, as well. I played in the Twickenham Sevens, as well.

“It was a very gregarious place for outsiders. There were loads from the north played there, as well. From an Irish point of view, though, it’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If I wanted any more caps, I had to come back.”

Home, where he’d marry Sneem woman Josephine, and would have a daughter, Laura, beckoned.

“The shop is in our family since 1878. It was in my blood, even when I went teaching. It was a drapery shop, or a wholesalers, since 1878, but before that it was a ballroom. Charles Stewart Parnell spoke to a mob from a window. That type of history ties you into the place.”

He taught in old rivals, Christians, for a year, but “the family business was more important”.

Moss Finn, John O'Dwyer, long-serving staff member, and Will Finn. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Moss Finn, John O'Dwyer, long-serving staff member, and Will Finn. Picture: Jim Coughlan

If he had been ‘out of sight out of mind’ in London, his return to the shadow of the Shandon Bells paid off in ’82. Even if his memory of a scintillating display against the Welsh is still hazy.

“I got a break, because Jim Crotty cried off the Munster team. I was picked out of the blue, on a Thursday, and I did well in Ravenhill, against Ireland, playing on the outside, and I came straight into the Ireland team, then.

“We played Wales. I got concussed in the match, scored a couple of tries, but couldn’t remember them. In the middle of the second-half, it was as if I woke up. I turned to Duggan, as Ollie Campbell was taking a kick, and said ‘what’s happening?’ ‘Shut up, you eejit, we’re winning and you’re after scoring two tries,’ he was looking at me.

“It was a disaster, of course, because I had to spend the night at hospital, instead of celebrating. I met Barry Coughlan, in Le Chateau, on the Monday night, and said that to him. The headline afterwards, in the Echo, was ‘He had to be told…’ I can still picture that one.”

There were plenty of other adventures. A tour of Japan, in 1985, and of France with a Barbarians team. He visited Canada with Cork Con and UCC, while, back in ’78, a Combined Universities team, which included Jerry Holland and Donal Spring, travelled to New Zealand and won.

While on one level, nothing could match the pride and significance of wearing the Irish geansaí, or Munster’s 1978 win, the club — especially Cork Con — mattered to Finn.

The Cork Constitution team who played Shannon in the Munster Senior League Final in 1988. Included are Moss Finn (front row with ball) and Donal Linehan (fifth from left, back row).
The Cork Constitution team who played Shannon in the Munster Senior League Final in 1988. Included are Moss Finn (front row with ball) and Donal Linehan (fifth from left, back row).

“The club scene was strong because a Lansdowne and Cork Con match could have 10 internationals. That’s why there were crowds of 10,000.

“The club was paramount and everyone understood that.

“When you went to the away games, they’d try and kill you on the pitch, and if you survived, they’d buy you a pint. That was the way of it! The front row was always attritional.

“We’d a fierce team with Con. We won four cups and they were paramount that time. We’d Lenihan, Mickey Bradley, Kenny Murphy, Ralph Keys.”

The genesis of the Munster ethos and identity was forged then.

“We’d struggle with Shannon on wet days. Niall O’Donovan brought that toughness from Shannon, when he went in with (Declan) Kidney. I know it’s a cliché, ‘forwards win games and backs decide by how much’, but you’re never going to win anything with only a team of Simon Zebos. It’s the same in GAA. If you don’t dominate midfield… forget it most of the time.”

Though determined not to spend our chat in SoHo reminiscing about his own time, Finn does get frustrated at the overly complicated approach now, the obsession with fitness fads and gym work. Particularly when it’s to the detriment of the club.

“Lads were still very fit. There’s a lot to be said for steak and milk over protein shakes.

“You have the odd exception, like Peter O’Mahony who is a great guy and whose father is president of Con next year, but the balance isn’t there between the clubs and provinces.” 

Moss Finn, Donncha O'Callaghan and Ronan O'Gara, all Triple Crown winners, pictured during a visit to their former school, Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh. Picture: Mike English
Moss Finn, Donncha O'Callaghan and Ronan O'Gara, all Triple Crown winners, pictured during a visit to their former school, Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh. Picture: Mike English

He has huge admiration for O’Mahony, but – as the man who gave O’Gara his first rugby ball when he called into the shop at the age of four – Finn always gets a buzz from Corkonians starring with Munster and Ireland.

“From an Irish point of view you’d always be thrilled to see Cork players get on. That’s only natural. James Cronin has struggled with injuries but I think he has what you need to make it to the very top. His brother Miah is a very good player as well.

Simon Zebo in action against Liam Coombes at training. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo in action against Liam Coombes at training. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

“I love Zebo because he’s true to himself. The bit of flair he brings is what the fans love. He’ll be missed.” 

One of the biggest thrills Finn got was sharing a pitch with his namesake, Kerry’s Moss Keane, one of the warriors of ’78 at Thomond Park.

“Moss Keane for me is very under-rated. The ban ended in 1971 but Moss had to play rugby under a pseudonym. Pat Parfrey got him in as a post-grad.

The UCC Football team that beat St Nicks in the county final.
The UCC Football team that beat St Nicks in the county final.

“Even when the ban was lifted it still existed unofficially. He won a county medal with college in October 1973, the College beat Bantry Blues; he played with Munster against the All Blacks in November; he played in Parc des Princes against France the following January… A genuine legend.

“When I was in UCC his status supplanted the university itself. He used to drive a Fiat 500 from the back seat, the front seat was taken out so he could fit into it, driving the road between Bill Ludgate’s and the Western Star.

“To stand in a dressing room with him was unbelievable for me. He was my sporting god. He encapsulated everything I aspired to. He never forget to have fun either.

“I remember doing a sponsored run in aid of Pat Carroll from the run – it was 10k – and with a couple of miles to go Moss Keane just whizzed past myself and Kiernan. We would have fit out but he burned us. Himself and Willie Duggan (the Kilkenny native who passed away last year) were enforcers in our era, but they could play too.” 

Moss Keane. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Moss Keane. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Though he would have liked to stay involved in hands-on way when he retired, work commitments made a coaching career too tricky to pull off.

“I coached Con for about three years, the backs, and I was a backs coach with Munster. It was around ’89-90 to ’93 but I couldn’t always make the matches with the shop. I’d be at training having missed a match and you can’t do that. There was no path into coaching then.

“I think that’s why Kidney was such a good coach because when he was 27/28 he was coaching Pres’ junior team. It was purely out of a love of coaching and even if there was no money in coaching he’d have stuck at it.” 

Golf – he’s a member of Lee Valley having lived in Ballincollig before returning to Bishopstown – is the 60-year-old’s sporting outlet now.

“Pilates got me back playing. I do it once a week with Garrett Flynn.

“I wouldn’t boast about anything and I’m not really comfortable talking about myself, but I’d definitely have been a better player if we’d that. Not weights now, but the core work. I used to keep pulling hamstrings when I was at my best and it was that the back wasn’t right. All we ever did to help the hamstrings was stretch, but sure the back of the leg wasn’t strong enough.” 

He didn’t do half bad all the same!

Moss Finn in his shop. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Moss Finn in his shop. Picture: Jim Coughlan

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