Leeside Legends: Tom Kiernan, a rugby great as a player and a coach

Former Irish full-back and captain inspired Munster to beat the All Blacks
Leeside Legends: Tom Kiernan, a rugby great as a player and a coach

Tom Kiernan in 1983. Picture: SPORTSFILE

AT the age of five, Tom Kiernan was the mascot for a schoolboys’ rugby match at Cork Constitution.

Led on to the field by international referee Dickie McGrath, the child was given the task of starting the game with a ceremonial kick-off.

When he swung his foot that day, Kiernan didn’t even manage to connect with the ball. Like most kids probably would have, he missed the target completely and kicked air.

Not quite quarter of a century later, the same boy was responsible for 35 of the 38 Test points scored by the 1968 Lions on their tour of South Africa. The start may have been inauspicious but the subsequent journey through the sport was an epic.

He captained UCC, Cork Constitution, Munster, Ireland, and the British Lions, and, for a long time, was the most-capped full-back in the history of the sport.

The Cork team which drew with Limerick in the Inter-Cities match at Thomond Park in 1959. Back: Bobby Walsh (Sunday's Well), Mick Rekab (UCC), Mick Walley (Sunday's Well), Hugh Coveney (Cork Con), Tony Wilkinson (Sunday's Well), Larry Murphy (Highfield), Liam Coughlan (Con), Fin Buckley (Highfield). Front: Don O'Connell (Landsdowne), Joe Cunningham (Con), Jerry O'Sullivan, captain (Dolphin), Tom Kiernan (UCC), Ray Hennessy (Con), Jerry Walsh (UCC), Mick Keyes (Con).
The Cork team which drew with Limerick in the Inter-Cities match at Thomond Park in 1959. Back: Bobby Walsh (Sunday's Well), Mick Rekab (UCC), Mick Walley (Sunday's Well), Hugh Coveney (Cork Con), Tony Wilkinson (Sunday's Well), Larry Murphy (Highfield), Liam Coughlan (Con), Fin Buckley (Highfield). Front: Don O'Connell (Landsdowne), Joe Cunningham (Con), Jerry O'Sullivan, captain (Dolphin), Tom Kiernan (UCC), Ray Hennessy (Con), Jerry Walsh (UCC), Mick Keyes (Con).

He pocketed 13 Munster Senior League medals and seven Munster Senior Cups, and for those who came of age in the Heineken Cup era, it is important to note that those competitions meant everything back in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

We might also point out that Kiernan was one of those who basically invented the European competitions that made the red jersey of Munster suddenly so ubiquitous on the streets of Cork in the 21st century.

GREATEST:

“What he contributed on and off the field, and the circumstances in which he achieved what he did at administrative level, marks him down as arguably the greatest figure in the history of the game in this country,” said Syd Millar, a former colleague on the field with Irish teams and off it in the committee rooms of the IRFU.

“Most people do not know, and in many respects that is understandable, what he contributed and the manner in which he handled the most critical situations.

“Some of the happenings could have led to the demise of the Five Nations and the European Cup, Tom Kiernan held European rugby together in those troubled times.”

After finishing as a player, he carved out two further careers in the highest echelons of the sport. He coached the Munster team that became the first Irish side to defeat the All-Blacks at Thomond Park in 1978, and, four years later, brought Ireland out of the wilderness to win the country’s first Triple Crown in 33 years.

Having become president of the Munster Branch in 1977, he also served terms as president of Cork Constitution and the IRFU, as chairman of the ERC (European Rugby Cup), honorary treasurer of the IRB (International Rugby Board), and a member of just about every heavyweight committee in Irish rugby up to his retirement in 2000.

That his career will never be replicated goes without saying. There will be other great players and other progressive administrators but, in the professional domain, none could possibly make the transition from one role to the other the way he did in his time.

Not to mention that the demarcation of the game now would prevent anybody from impacting at so many different levels.

The greatest irony may be perhaps that though he played and coached in the amateur era, his instincts on the field were always so professional. That much was evident from an early age.

Although he won Munster Junior and Senior Cup medals at Presentation College, Kiernan wasn’t selected on the provincial schools’ team to play against Ulster at Ravenhill in 1957.

On the morning of the game, however, his friend and schoolmate Jerry Walsh had to withdraw from the selection and Kiernan was promoted to the starting XV.

To that point, the Munster students had never emerged from Belfast victorious and that year’s northern crop was formidable, bulwarked by one Willie John McBride.

“Tom came into the side and it really was his cuteness that won the day for us,” recalled Jim Riordan, another member of that team.

“At half-time we were 9-0 down and we came back in the second half with 14 men to beat them 9-10. Whenever we were under pressure in the back, Kiernan would shout, ‘go down, injured!’ This caused Ulster a lot of frustrations, these interruptions in play.”

Imagine the maturity involved. A teen with the wherewithal to know achieving victory in difficult circumstances often requires far more pragmatism than romance.

That he was on the first Munster Schools’ team to defeat Ulster on their home patch is appropriate because historic firsts were a hallmark of his sporting life.

Apart from overturning the All-Blacks in 1978, he captained the first Irish team to win a Test in Australia in 1967, was full-back on the first Munster team to defeat Australia the same year, and kicked the winning score the first time Ireland bettered South Africa in 1965.

“It went so low over the crossbar,” said Kiernan later of his 75th-minute penalty that clinched the 9-6 victory at Lansdowne Road, “that it was like a two-iron golf shot.”

Thirty years after he last played for Ireland, the rugby fans elected him full-back on the Lansdowne Legends XV, a selection of the best Irish team ever. How others viewed him tells its own story too.

“The Grey Fox belonged in the old last-line-of-defence school of full-backs whose priority was to catch well and find an unerring touch,” wrote Gareth Edwards in his book, 100 Great Rugby Players.

Tom Kiernan shakes hand with President Eamon De Valera at the Ireland v Scotland game at Lansdowne Road in 1968.
Tom Kiernan shakes hand with President Eamon De Valera at the Ireland v Scotland game at Lansdowne Road in 1968.

“He could kick goals under pressure, and although he lacked the speed to enter the three-quarter line regularly and decisively, he recognised that this was a skill full-backs would have to cultivate, and tried to get up with a centre or a wing from time to time.

“Also on the field, it has to be said that nobody tried harder, or gave more than Tom Kiernan, a captain who led by example. It goes without saying that, as an opponent, Tom was one of the men Wales respected above all in my time.”

Born in Cork on January 7, 1939, Kiernan’s father Michael, a Westmeath man, had married Eileen Murphy from Tory Top Lane. A cousin of Noel Murphy, her brothers played for Cork Constitution and the bloodlines going through her side of the family ran thick with rugby.

The family home was on the Mardyke, and, from a young age, Tom Kiernan was steeped in the sport he later bestrode. By the time he walked into Presentation College, his older brother Jim was an established star at the school and the path had been laid out in front of him.

The only curiosity of his stint there is perhaps that he once lost a vote for the role of vice-captain. Pres would be the only team in his career he never led.

Just two years after his Leaving Cert, while still playing for UCC, he won his first Irish cap against England at Twickenham.

“Although Ireland lost 8-5, all the tension was for the innocent-faced Cork boy with the button nose and crinkly fair hair from Presentation College in his first international,” wrote Frank Keating in The Guardian, who travelled to the match as a spectator with his uncle John Kearney from Cork.

“He played a nerveless humdinger at full-back and the joy of my uncle’s group was unconfined — and, of course, Tom Kiernan went on to be the world’s most-capped full-back, captain of the Lions, and Munster’s coach when they beat the All-Blacks. And I was to grow up and become a friend of his until we stupidly fell out – completely my fault.”

Munster Rugby team 1958. Back: Gordon Wood, Spillane, Noel Murphy, Tom Nesdale, Finbarr Buckley, Paddy O'Callaghan, Gooser Geary, Tim McGrath. Front: Mick English, Ray Hennessey, Liam Coughlan, Tom Cleary, Tom Kiernan, Jerry Walsh, Dan Kennefick.
Munster Rugby team 1958. Back: Gordon Wood, Spillane, Noel Murphy, Tom Nesdale, Finbarr Buckley, Paddy O'Callaghan, Gooser Geary, Tim McGrath. Front: Mick English, Ray Hennessey, Liam Coughlan, Tom Cleary, Tom Kiernan, Jerry Walsh, Dan Kennefick.

Keating’s mistake was to write, years after the fact, about how back in 1982, he spent the Friday night before Ireland played Scotland in the game that clinched the Triple Crown in a pub drinking with Kiernan and some senior members of the Irish team.

That Kiernan didn’t appreciate the journalist’s revelation about the unorthodox and relaxed preparation of his side was inevitable.

The ability to unite his players and to have them believing themselves capable of great things was a feature of his coaching style. Keating had breached the confidence of the inner sanctum.

“The first time to do anything is hard,” said Gerry McLoughlin in Stand Up and Fight, Alan English’s classic account of the 1978 victory over New Zealand.

“First Cup medal. First time to play for your country. First Irish team to beat the All-Blacks. It’s only human to have doubts. You don’t know if you can do it or not. Outside of Munster, people made you feel you weren’t good enough. But Kiernan put the belief into us. He convinced us we could do it.”

Tom Kiernan with supporters during All Blacks match in 1978. 
Tom Kiernan with supporters during All Blacks match in 1978. 

In the build-up to that game, Kiernan had reinforced the idea in their heads that the New Zealanders were not superhuman. Sure, they had the reputation and the tradition, but they were actually just 15 men. He’d seen a Munster team robbed by the All-Blacks at the Mardyke when he was just nine years old, played on a side that drew with them at Musgrave Park in 1973.

He knew they were beatable on any given day. Part of his unique approach that afternoon in Limerick involved a long period of silence during the team meeting, a ruse designed to force the Munster players to think those thoughts for themselves.

Elsewhere in that book, English recounts a wonderful exchange between Kiernan and Martin Walsh, a Dubliner who was one of the touch judges in Thomond Park. With three minutes remaining on referee Norris White’s watch, Walsh was officiating a line-out on halfway when he heard a voice behind shouting, “Martin, Martin….” When he turned around he saw Tom Kiernan, no longer able to sit in the stand as the final whistle loomed.

“If he asks you what time is left, tell him it’s all up,” said Kiernan.

“As if I wouldn’t,” replied Walsh.

CAMEO

That little cameo epitomises Kiernan’s attitude. Twelve points up and the clock ticking down yet no room for complacency. Even the soiree in Sean Lynch’s pub on the eve of the triumph over Scotland in 1982 can be viewed — much like Brian Clough’s celebrated use of the same tactic on the eve of a European Cup final with Nottingham Forest — as one more canny strategy to get his players in the best frame of mind possible.

Ollie Campbell has always maintained that Kiernan’s approach to the Scottish game, including holding a behind-closed-doors training session on the Thursday, meant he was never more relaxed before a crucial fixture.

“Kiernan was an absolute rock,” said Campbell. “People forget that going into the Welsh game we had lost seven and drawn one of our previous eight games. We had been whitewashed the previous season but, as Moss Keane, it had been Ireland’s best ever whitewash!”

The Triple Crown had always been out of Ireland’s reach during Kiernan’s stint at full-back. He played 54 internationals, but his best chance of a Triple Crown or a Grand Slam was scuppered in 1972 by Scotland and Wales refusing to travel to Dublin because of the deteriorating political situation in the North.

He was unlucky too with the Lions. Having travelled to South Africa in 1962, he returned as captain six years later, favoured for the post over Scotland’s Jim Telfer. They lost three Tests and drew one, but two of the defeats were by just five points, and Kiernan’s contribution with his boot had basically kept them in every match.

“Kiernan’s captaincy came slap in the middle of the period when coaches were taking over the direction of rugby matches from captains, and I often enjoyed late-night conversations with the Cork accountant on the validity of the new system,” wrote Gareth Edwards.

“On the Irish tour of Australia, he would argue, he had been in sole charge of coaching and also of tactics during matches. Suddenly, he found himself having to play a subservient role to Ronnie Dawson, appointed as the Lions’ first-ever coach. This gave rise to a few misgivings on his part. After the tour had been underway for a few weeks, however, he was prepared to admit that there was much to be said for the new regime.”

Dawson and Kiernan later soldiered together in the committee rooms of Irish and international rugby. The administrative phase of his life was to prove as productive as the other two before it.

His chairmanship of the then Five Nations and the ERC came at particularly contentious junctures when, more than once, northern hemisphere rugby looked like splitting in two. Having been involved in its conception, many cite his stewardship, in particular, as crucial to saving the European Cup from early extinction, most especially during the self-imposed exile of English clubs.

“His career has been without parallel in the history of the game in this country,” wrote Edmund Van Esbeck in an Irish Times piece on the occasion of Kiernan’s retirement from the IRFU and the IRB in 2000.

“What he has given to the game — not just here but globally — most certainly deserves to be recognised and more widely appreciated than, I believe, it is. It could be said that in every facet of the game that he embraced he made a profound impact.

“Rugby officials very often come in for criticism and sometimes it is justified. Likewise, there are occasions when credit is not given where it is due…Kiernan’s place at the pinnacle of Irish rugby will not depend on tradition, legend, hearsay, or deception or exaggerated claims. The facts speak for themselves, for his has been a career without equal in the history of Irish rugby.”

Without equal. Without parallel. Van Esbeck said it best.

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