IT IS one of the legendary days in Irish rugby. In Thomond Park, Limerick, on Tuesday October 31 1978, Munster took on one of the greatest New Zealand sides of all time - and beat them, 12 - 0. Afterwards All Blacks wing Stu Wilson said : “We were lucky to get nil.”
That famous victory is celebrated and commemorated in John Breen’s phenomenally popular and critically acclaimed comedy play Alone It Stands which is coming to the Town Hall Theatre from Monday March 11 to Saturday 16 at 8pm
Although Munster have since gone on to greater things - Heineken Cup victories in 2006 and 2008 and league wins in 2003, 2009, and 2011 - while Ireland scored a Six Nations win in 2009 and enjoyed six Triple Crown victories since the 1980s, this Munster match holds a place in the imagination like none else.
“It’s because the All Blacks are the Holy Grail of Rugby,” explains John Breen, during our Monday morning interview. “That New Zealand side was one of the greatest ever and Munster were the only team on that tour who beat them. The English provinces had all lost as did the Irish team, although they had come close in the second test.
“It is also because there is something magical about the amateur era. All the players had day jobs. Moss Keane worked for the Department of Agriculture, Tony Ward and Seamus Dennison were teachers. They were all local lads. The people all knew them. There was not one degree of separation between the people in the park and those watching in the stands. It means Munster has a legacy, there is a heritage and identity, and a wonderful story going back years.”
The 1978 victory is justifiably a source of pride for Munster fans and players, but for those of us who are Connacht Rugby followers, why should we go see a play about the triumphs of another province?
“After Munster played the All Blacks, the next game they had was against Connacht and Connacht beat them!” John reveals. “Also my wife co-produced the recent Connacht documentary, The West’s Awake. I think the play will appeal to Connacht fans as that time when the IRFU were trying to wipe out Connacht, the community spirit and connection that inspired people to stand up and protest against the move is reflected in the devotion Munster people have to their side.
“The victory was also a great day for Irish rugby and Ireland. It came at a time when the country had very little to cheer about. One of the characters in the play is unemployed and looking for a job an his wife is expecting a baby. When I wrote the play in 1999 things like that seemed quaint but now it’s back with a vengeance and again we’re looking for heroes, and we found them in ‘78.
“Above all, Alone It Stands is a comedy where you can have a laugh and a great time. I wrote it with the idea that you need not know about rugby to enjoy it but also to evangelise about rugby and Munster rugby culture.”
In 1978 Thomond Park held about 12,000 people - eight times less than the number of people who now claim to have been there - but John had plenty of reliable sources and players to consult when writing the play.
“I was 12 when the match was played,” he says. “I wasn’t there, but friends of mine were and my brother. I was out building a bonfire. I include that in the play and I mythologise my own past, making it the place where I had my first kiss with a girl called Monica - although that was not to actually happen until 1981. My kids have seen the play and they want to know who Monica is.”
John would hear stories from the match in his father’s pub Myles Breen’s - which Tony Ward has described as “the only ecumenical rugby bar in Limerick” where rival fans can gather in the one spot - while working there as a teenager. In 1998, as the 20th anniversary of the match approached, John, now working in theatre as a director, was disappointed to see no commemoration taking place. He began asking if anyone might write a play on the subject, but ended up doing it himself.
“I was born into that culture, grew up absorbing it, and played for Garryowen,” he says. “My brother Larry who was at the match told me great stories. I spoke to Seamus Dennison, Moss Keane, Tony Ward, the match officials, and I made extensive use of the match reports in the newspapers of the time. I had to get the details of the match right or I wouldn’t have been let back into Limerick, I would have been run out of town!”
“Rugby also lends itself well to theatre. Hurling and soccer are more fluid games and that is hard to replicate on stage whereas rugby is stop/start and you can stage the scrums, rucks, and mauls. Alone It Stands was originally written to be performed in rugby clubs so there is very little need for set pieces apart from two benches and mats to allow the actors to fall when performing scenes from the match.”
Alone It Stands features a cast of six playing 72 characters, ranging from players and coaches to fans and those who were in Limerick that day.
“Having been a director I knew what I wanted and how it could be done,” says John, “but playing so many characters does require actors with specific skills and it is not everyone who can do it. That’s also the wonderful thing about theatre, a simple hand gesture or a twist of the voice can create an entire world. I wanted Alone It Stands to be as close to a pure theatre experience as you can get. It’s the actor’s voices and bodies and the audience’s imagination that will create the scenes and bring the stories to life.”
While the play is a phenomenon in Ireland, having enjoyed numerous revivals, it has also been staged in Australia and New Zealand. How have audiences there reacted?
“The Australian production was done in 2002, and they brought me over to help with publicity,” says John. “It was even staged in the Sydney Opera House, but the thing is Australians think there is nothing funnier than the New Zealand accent so it was not as well received when the production toured New Zealand as it might have been, but New Zealand companies have since staged it and it’s gotten a great response.
“I think New Zealanders know that was the only match on the tour they lost so they take it on the chin. It’s also a very positive play. When you see it you will feel better about yourself and the world around you. People can’t help but be affected by that.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie