Last Monday rugby lost a legend.
Moss Keane, a name known to a generation of Irish, and respected across the rugby community passed away at the age of 62 after a long battle with cancer.
Maurice ‘Moss’ Keane was unusual for a rugby player of his time. A late-comer to the game, he came from a non-rugby family and originally played Gaelic Football up to under-21 level for his native county of Kerry. A friend in university introduced him to rugby, which he quickly mastered thanks to the jumping and ball-handling skills of Gaelic, rising up to provincial level and becoming a mainstay for the Munster team throughout the 70s and early 80s.
He made his debut for Ireland at the late age of 26, not so unusual in the amateur era when players often made late debuts making only a few appearances. Moss Keane played a then record 51 times for an Irish forward, and was never dropped. Success on the international stage came early with a debut Five Nations trophy in 1974. He was rewarded towards the end of his career by being a member of the Irish triple-crown winning team of 1983, retiring from the game shortly after.
But it was for Munster that he played his most famous game. In autumn of 1978 the New Zealand All-Blacks toured the UK and Ireland defeating not only all of the home sides (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales) but every club and provincial team in between tests. Midway through their tour (October 31st) they travelled to Thomond Park to take on Munster. Until that date no Irish team had beaten the All-Blacks (Munster once held them to a 3-3 draw) but Munster incredibly went on to beat them 12-0 (one converted try, two drop goals), in a game that has entered rugby mythology, so much so that it inspired an award-winning play – Alone It Stands, the name deriving from the Shannon RFC song The Isle.
In the amateur era of the game it was necessary to hold down a full-time job. Moss worked as a milk inspector at the Department of Agriculture, a position he held until his retirement in July 2010. His transfer to Dublin required a change in clubs and he selected Landsdowne, a club he had grown to love and respect when he travelled to Dublin on International duty. Munster’s loss was Leinster’s gain and it was when he made the move that I first got a glimpse of the big man in the flesh. Moss Keane was an inspiration for all the schoolboy players of the time. In school everybody wanted to be the scrum-half, a position that imparted power and usually came with the captaincy, but for Ireland everybody wanted to emulate Moss, the second row lock who was in all-likelihood the inspiration for the current Irish locks of Paul O’Connell, Malcolm O’Kelly, Donnacha O’Callaghan, and Leo Cullen. He was the Chabal of his day, fast, strong and athletic in the air, and a real workhorse who was always dedicated to his game. Off the pitch he was eagerly sought out by autograph hunters and fans who were in awe of his presence, and he always obliged, such was his temperament (sadly, my personal autograph is long lost).
Moss was interviewed a few times since his retirement from rugby, particularly to give his opinion on the game since professionalism, the new generation of rugby players, and to reminisce on his time in the game. I was most shocked with how much he had aged, looking far older than he should have. But the Moss I remember is the one of him running across the field of Landsdowne Road, rucking and mauling and rising for the ball in the lineouts. And after the game, my ten year-old self running over to the tunnel entrance with a pen and paper which this giant snatched from my hand, scribbled his name and handed it back to me as I watched, wide-eyed, as his steam-covered silhouette walked gingerly down to the dressing rooms.
It is an image I will take to my grave. Thanks, Big man.
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.