Munster set stage for game's romance

The Irish province's 1978 defeat of the All Blacks provides the subject for John Breen's remarkable play. By Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Irish rugby has always had its poets: Jackie Kyle's great matches were divided into stanzas rather than halves, Ollie Campbell wrote faultless iambic pentameter with his right boot and Tony Ward could drop-kick a sonnet from 40 yards and send it spinning line over line between the enemy posts, as the All Blacks discovered to their cost in Limerick 24 years ago. If John Breen, a playwright with a poet's ear, is one of a tiny handful of Munstermen prepared to admit they were elsewhere that October afternoon in 1978 – he was pinching wood for a bonfire at the time – he has also done more than anyone to keep the flame of the occasion burning bright.

Breen's warm, lyrical and brilliantly staged first play, Alone It Stands, has just departed English shores after a successful run in the West End – a peculiar piece of theatrical fixture planning to be sure, given Ireland's visit to Twickenham for this weekend's second round of Six Nations matches. We have not seen the last of it, though, any more than we have seen the last of Keith Wood, the Irish captain and Lions hooker extraordinaire, whose injury problems have denied him a place in Saturday's free-for-all. The play, already seen by 120,000 people (not all of them Irish, either), has returned home for a while, but will head for Australia in July and tour the United Kingdom in the autumn.

The question is this: have we seen the last of the pure rugby spirit – the sporting romance – that informs every last word and punctuation mark of Breen's script? Generally speaking, professionalism leaves romanticism for dead; it is inconceivable that a collection of "lawyers, accountants and plumbers", as Breen characterised the educated snooties of Garryowen and the blue-collar tradesmen of Shannon who contributed so handsomely to that Munster vintage, could go within 40 points of a 21st century All Black team, let alone beat them to nil.

"I do wonder sometimes whether it's still there, the special spirit," Breen admits. "When I was researching the play, I spoke about this with Tony Ward, who dropped those two wonderful goals in the '78 game, and also converted Christy Cantillon's try. He told me that in those days, a player performed more honestly for Munster than he did for the national side. With Ireland, it was a case of thinking about your international career, of looking out for yourself. With Munster, the team was the thing. Nothing else mattered except being there for each other.

"When I see Munster now – and I've travelled with them in Europe and experienced some of their great adventures in the Heineken Cup – I get the feeling that the old values still count for something. They have an amazing esprit de corps, those fellas: there is a heroic, talismanic dimension to the Mick Galweys and Peter Clohessys that the '78 side would understand. Funnily enough, though, I think maybe this present Ireland team has a similar quality about it. I see it in the mighty Wood, for example; and of course, Galwey and Clohessy are there in the pack. They have bonded as a side and they have the essence of rugby inside them. Some of the things I wrote about in the play, I recognise in them."

There is little about rugby's essence that Breen does not recognise, judging by Alone It Stands. He comes from a rugby background – being a man of Limerick, it would have been remarkable had he come from anything else – and as a "windy youth", he played at the Garryowen club. "My dad had a bar in Limerick, and it was a real rugby bar, a home to a number of local teams," he recalls. "I absorbed the culture through osmosis, almost. Where I come from, you're born into a club, and Garryowen was mine. My nephew has been playing for Old Crescent just recently, and it has caused a rift in the family, I can tell you.

"I'm no expert on rugby, not really. I played a little, I'm a mad-keen follower and I love the banter on the terraces, but I couldn't tell you the name of every full-back who played for Ireland between 1946 and 1996, or anything daft like that. What I do know, and respect, is what rugby has done for my country. I'm not getting all political about this, but the Ireland team is a 32-county team, and as such it has been, and continues to be, a tremendously positive force. So yes, I love my rugby, and I want it to keep hold of the things that made it what it is.

"Because of that, I'm very iffy about some of the more recent rule changes. Watching the Australians win the last World Cup, it seemed to me that they were all about strength and power; they weren't the most beautiful team in the tournament, but they forced everyone else to play it their way. To me, the beauty of rugby is in its subtlety. It doesn't look especially subtle to the uninitiated, of course, but the best exponents are as much chess players as they are athletes. I don't want to see the game over-simplified by law changes aimed at capturing a wider audience. The original cast of Alone It Stands had never played the game – at first, it was genuinely a case of 'Right, this is a ball' – but they were soon amazed by the intricacy of it all. That's what I want to hang on to."

Alone It Stands first suggested itself to Breen in 1999, the 21st anniversary of the victory over the New Zealanders. "I'd been working as a theatre director for some years, and when the idea occurred to me, I tried to get other people to write it," he says. "Everyone seemed to think it was a grand subject, but there were no takers; in the end, I wrote the thing myself. The key element was the death of Donal Canniffe's father during the game" – Canniffe was the Munster scrum-half and captain that day – "because that provided an emotional centre for the thing. Without that, it would have been a game of rugby and nothing more.

"Then I had this mental picture of a woman giving birth over a ruck [one of the comic strands of the play concerns a Munster supporter who, having gloried in the proceedings at Thomond Park, hares off to the local maternity hospital and arrives to see his wife in the company of twin sons who had not been around at kick-off time] and the rest started falling into place. Our first performance took place at a rugby club in front of 30 people, none of whom had ever been to the theatre. It would be fair to say the play has exceeded all expectations."

Will he be at Twickenham on Saturday? "Sadly not," says Breen, who is now working on a play about the former Irish prime minister, Charles Haughey. "I'd love to be there, but I'm running a theatre company in County Mayo and there is work to be done. We're the most westerly theatre group in Europe, you know. Next stop, New York." If Breen's company ever head across the Atlantic, they should take Alone It Stands with them. There are one or two emerald types in the Big Apple, after all.