Moss Keane: Rugby union player hailed as one of the finest Ireland has produced

By Rob Cole
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:30

It says much about the widespread appeal of Moss Keane that as well as the inevitable sporting heroes who attended their former team-mate's funeral, the Taoiseach and the President of Ireland both sent high-ranking officials to represent them among the 800 mourners who walked alongside his coffin to St Michael's Church in Portarlington, Co Laois.

Moss was a big man with a massive presence on both the GAA and Irish rugby union playing fields, but a gentle, affable giant off it. Everyone loved his humble, often self-deprecating nature and everyone admired the strength and determination he brought to everything in his life.

Weighing in at 14lb at birth, he was a bruiser from the start. He grew into one of the most feared rugby union forwards in the northern hemisphere and became one of the rocks in an Irish pack that earned major honours during his 51-cap career that stretched over a decade.

Born into a relatively poor family in Currow, Co Kerry, he had to share a bed with his brother, Brian, for the first 10 years of his life. But from those humble, farmhouse beginnings, he grew into an international sportsman of world renown who also developed an excellent career off the field working for the Department of Agriculture.

In a tribute made shortly after the announcement of Keane's death, the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, described him as "one of the finest rugby players Ireland has ever produced and among rugby's best-known characters, a legend of the game at home and abroad."

Keane started out as a Gaelic footballer, playing at college level for University College Cork, and in the process winning a number of medals, including three Sigerson Cups. He represented the Kerry Gaelic football side at U-21 level as a full back.

After school in St Brendan's, Killarney, he gained a Masters in DairyScience at UCC and discovered rugby through a friend in college, playing for the UCC junior rugby team as "Moss Fenton", during the GAA's ban on foreign games. And on Easter Sunday, 1971, he played in what he described as "my first legal rugby game because on that same day the GAA lifted its ban on Gaelic players playing other sports." When asked what he first thought about rugby he answered: "It was like watching a pornographic movie – very frustrating for those watching and only enjoyable for those participating."

He made his provincial debut for Munster against Ulster – in direct opposition to the man he would pack down alongside on his test debut, Willie John McBride – and got his first job in what he described as the "butter department" of the Department Of Agriculture. His first of 51 caps came on 19 January, 1974 against France at the Parc des Princes and he went on to become the third Irish forward after McBride and Fergus Slattery to reach 50 international appearances.

He played his final international against Scotland on 3 March 1984 in Dublin and was also a key memberof the famous Munster side that defeated the All Blacks in Thomond Parkin 1978. That came the year after he was drafted into the British and Irish Lions side as a replacement for Wales's Geoff Wheel.

He played 12 games for the Lions and forced his way into the Test side for the first of the four internationals against the All Blacks in Wellington. The Lions lost and Keane became one of the casualties in selection for the remaining three Tests.

He scored just a single try for Ireland, against Scotland at Lansdowne Road in 1980, declaring, "Donal Spring passed me the ball and I trotted for six or seven yards before I crashed through one tackle and flopped down in the corner."

He was a hugely influential figure in Ireland's Five Nations Championship and Triple Crown triumph in 1982 and is heralded as the first Kerryman to play rugby for Ireland.

Another Munster, Ireland and Lions second row, Donal Lenihan, described sharing a room with Keane as "a challenge in itself – memorable, always fun and full of incident. The word 'legend' and phrases such as 'larger than life' are often used when describing the passing of influential figures in Irish society. In Moss Keane's case, they don't even come close.

"It's not often that someone actually gets to play with one of their sporting heroes but I was fortunate to live that dream. To be in Mossy's presence was always an enlightening experience. He was a true colossus of a man who will go down as one of the all-time greats. He was very brave about the whole thing at the end – he had cancer, he wasn't afraid to talk about it and he fought it every step of the way."

Having been diagnosed with cancer in 2009, Keane died after an 18-month battle. A keen golfer, he went out after watching the final three holes of the Ryder Cup accompanied by his parish priest, Father Tom Dooley.

Maurice Ignatius Keane, rugby union player: born Currow, Co Kerry 27 July 1948; married Anne (two daughters); died Co Laois 5 October 2010.

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