Munster’s 1978 heroes on living with with the physical toll of rugby

Alan English


Alan English


Munster's 1978  heroes living with with the physical toll of rugby

Full-back Larry Moloney, pictured left, broke every bone on his left side during his playing days and has had two hips replaced in the years

Forty years on from their victory against the All Blacks, the Munster players of 1978 are in their sixties and seventies now. To a man they watch the professional rugby of today and shudder at the collisions.

“I worry about the physicality in today’s game,” says Donal Spring, Munster’s No 8 on October 31, 1978, when the team toppled the mighty New Zealanders at Thomond Park.

“I don’t think enough attention is being paid to the injury toll. It’s shocking. The attrition is off the charts these days.”

It’s not as if the heroes of 1978 escaped unscathed, though. Before he died in 2010, the legendary lock forward Moss Keane wrote: “When anyone plays a game as tough as rugby football, they know there will be consequences.”

Even Moss, though, would surely be taken aback by the amount of hip, knee and back operations his 1978 team-mates have needed since they hung up their boots.

Jimmy Bowen: “I don’t know where the game is going, because it seems to be complete physicality now. I’m fairly broken up from rugby — and I think some of these guys today are going to be in a mess. Three years after the All Blacks game, I ruptured my knee playing for Lansdowne on the back pitch. Over the years I’ve had seven knee operations. I’ll need to have the knee replaced, before long. I’ve been told my body will tell me when it needs to be done.”

Donal Spring: “I’ve had three back operations – mainly rugby-related. I’ll be 62 this year, but my mind is still playing rugby. I wake up some mornings and I feel like I could play again. Until I try to get out of bed.”

Gerry McLoughlin: “I got a new knee in 2004. I had a bad limp and I needed to do something for my quality of life. It was inevitable, really. I hurt the old one at sixteen and I played all my rugby without a cartilage in that knee. Bone against bone for 20 years.”

Donal Canniffe: “I got away fairly unscathed. Maybe I was cute.”

Pat Whelan: “I’ve dodgy knees. One of them I am going to have to get something done with. But that’s about the size of it. I’m lucky.”

Larry Moloney: “I’ll give my body to some museum, I think, when I’m finished with it. I broke every bone on one side – cheekbone, collarbone, dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, broken leg. I had serious hamstring problems, which stemmed from disc problems in my back. Eventually, at 29, I got a few discs taken out. I was still playing, but the medical advice was ‘end of story’.

“Since then, I’ve had two hips replaced. And now I’ve two knees giving me problems. I’ve got osteoporosis in both, but the right one is worse. Downstream, I’ll have to get something done. To get up and walk is difficult, at times. But once I’m moving, I’m okay.

“Back when we played, if you went down after a collision you’d be told, ‘You’re only winded – keep going.’ If you had an injury, it was ‘Ah jaysus, throw some ice on it. You’ll be fine.’

Seamus Dennison: “A bottle of water on the leg – and the water did the business. It was straight out of The Art of Coarse Rugby.”

Jimmy Bowen: “Now, they’re better trained and better advised about strength and conditioning, about diet and all that. But the hits that they are taking — it’s phenomenal. You cringe sometimes.”

Seamus Dennison: “I’ve had both of my hips replaced. I don’t know if it was down to rugby. I’m 68 now and I think it was just part of life - wear and tear. Just one of those things.”

Greg Barrett: “Lower back pain, stiffness in my shoulder. Nothing serious, just wear and tear.”

Moss Finn: “Left knee a bit, lower back, shoulder, right wrist. I broke it playing against Garryowen on a day Wardy scored about a million points and it f***s up my golf. It didn’t heal – they didn’t have the pins that time. But nothing major.”

Christy Cantillon: “I’ve just got two new knees. They were banjaxed and impacting on normal life. Walking was becoming difficult and you can only tolerate so much pain.

“I’d attribute that completely to rugby. When I was 17, a fellow drove through my left knee and opened it up. Then the cruciate in my right knee went when I was 28. I’ve had slipped discs, a quadruple bypass five years ago and a tumour in my neck, in the last year. Other than that, I’m fine.”

Geraldine Tucker, Colm Tucker’s widow: “Towards the end of his career it was one injury after another with Colm. Every week he was ending up out at the Regional Hospital. I said, ‘Colm, you have them baffled now – why don’t you just give it up?’ If he was still here I imagine he’d be having bits of him replaced. His right knee was giving him a lot of trouble. He always had a bad back. The players are looked after much better now, but I see the impacts and – oh my God - I worry.”

Tony Ward: “Sore knees, sore ankles – but they came from playing soccer. I got out of my rugby career virtually scot free.”

Seamus Dennison: “Wardy never tackled anyone.”

Brendan Foley: “I’m okay, injury wise.”

Les White: ”I’m okay, I’m not suffering from anything. Not physically.”

Gerry McLoughlin: “As you go through life, the body can sometimes let you down, but I’d consider myself one of the lucky ones. On that 1978 team, not everyone was as lucky as me.”

This is an edited extract from the new, updated edition of Stand Up and Fight, by Alan English (Yellow Jersey Press), which is out now.