By Gerry Kelly
Special for TSC  

Ireland began their 2022 Six Nations campaign with a full attendance for the first time in 2 years, and a comprehensive win (29-7) over Wales.

Before the match began a minute’s silence was held in to mark the passing of the great Tom Kiernan at the age of 83.

Kiernan is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s best players at full back, and finest coach of the amateur era; but it is perhaps as an administrator that he left his greatest mark not just on Irish but European and World Rugby.

Born in Cork in 1939 he won his first cap in 1960, and retired as an international player in 1973. By then he had won 54 caps – all at Full Back and captained his country 24 times. Nicknamed “the grey fox”, at the time of his retirement he was Ireland’s most capped player, most experienced captain and greatest points scorer with 158 pts. In his playing career he said modestly that “the Full Back was expected to do nothing more than catch the ball and kick it into the crowd”.

He captained the first Irish team to win a test match in Australia, and he also captained the British & Irish Lions to South Africa in 1968, and scored 35 of their 38 points in 4 test matches.

When his playing career ended Kiernan moved into coaching where another impressive list of success and firsts would follow. In 1978 his Munster team recorded a famous 12-0 victory over New Zealand, and in 1982 he coached Ireland to their first “Triple Crown” since 1949.

Kiernan then spent several years in administrative roles including President of Munster rugby, and President of the I.R.F.U. All of this was during Rugby’s amateur era, but it was said of Kiernan that “the era was amateur, but his standards were always professional”

Perhaps Kiernan’s greatest work came in the 1990s and 2000s when Rugby officially went professional (1995) and the game entered a fractious era where splits and boycotts seemed to be never ending. He was Director of the first professional Rugby World Cup (1999), and then oversaw the admission of Italy into the old 5 Nations Tournament (2000) He also oversaw the creation of the 2 new European club competitions. “He held European rugby together in troubled times”. Both the 6 Nations and European club competitions were regularly threatened with boycotts – mostly by England demanding more money because of their greater population. Whilst the 6 Nations boycott never came to pass, the 1999 European club tournament went ahead without English clubs. Famously Ulster won the trophy that year, and it is here that Kiernan’s greatest legacy to Irish rugby can be seen…..

When the game went professional Rugby was a predominantly middle class sport, and trailed a distant third in terms of numbers behind football & the GAA sports of Gaelic Football and hurling. As new league competitions formed with the Welsh and Scottish Rugby unions, plus the new European club competitions it appeared that the obvious path was to create 4 professional clubs – 1 for each of the cities with the biggest rugby playing populations; Dublin Limerick Cork and Belfast. Tom Kiernan had a better and bigger vision. He proposed reverting to a provincial structure – something the GAA have always used. This would he felt attract bigger crowds, but also spread the game much deeper across the country. Ireland’s 4 provinces represent ancient divisions of the country, and are very much a part of many peoples identities. Today a quarter of a century later Kiernan’s vision has been proved absolutely the right way to go. Schools that never previously played the game now compete in provincial leagues and cups. Each of the 4 provinces has an Academy and Centre of Excellence spotting promising young players in their early teens.

Success in Europe – Munster in 2006 & 2008 then Leinster in 2009, 2011, 2012 (when they beat Ulster in the final) & 2018 – has played a huge part in ending Ireland’s rugby inferiority complex – especially competing with and regularly winning AWAY to top French and English club sides.

In addition Irish (and French) rugby are financially far stronger than the other European nations. The provinces are well supported and the game is now considered part of Ireland’s sporting “Big 3”. Many of its most talented recruits also learnt Gaelic Football which remains an amateur unpaid sport. But a talent for rugby could prove a lucrative if hard-earned career path. It can now truly be said that rugby is an all-island sport with roots in every county. This is definitely NOT the case in Scotland Wales or Italy.

It has been obvious as this year’s 6 Nations unfolds that France & Ireland are by quite a distance the 2 best teams in the tournament. They also appear at this point to be Europe’s best hope for a triumph in next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Ireland won their first Grand Slam in 1948. They did not win it again until 2009. But won it again in 2018. We are now regularly in the Top 5 and New Zealand now consider us a rival on a par with South Africa and Australia. Ireland went more than a century before beating the All Blacks; they have now done so 3 times in 5 years. All of this is part of Tom Kiernan’s legacy. But perhaps his greatest legacy of all is that this strength and success is not simply down to a “golden generation”, it is instead a direct result of a system born of a vision of better & higher standards. It seems likely – thanks to Tom Kiernan – that an island of just 7 million people can continue to mix it on the rugby pitch with countries with far bigger populations far into the future. After all – as Tom Kiernan undoubtedly would have pointed out – if New Zealand can do it there’s no reason why Ireland cannot match them.