Alone It Stands Tells Munster Rugby Story

Playwright John Breen tells the story of Munster rugby team's historic 1978 victory over the All Blacks at the Waterfront Hall

In the 35 years since Munster’s rugby team became the only Irish side to defeat the New Zealand All Blacks, the one constant that has remained has been the 12-0 score line. The same cannot be said for the numbers who turned up to witness that historic event.

While the official attendance in Limerick’s Thomond Park was recorded at 12,000 on that last day in October 1978, an estimated 100,000 people apparently claim to have been there to watch as Christy Cantillon’s try and Tony Ward’s conversion and two drop goals put the tourists to the sword.

And you can add your name to that list by proxy, too, if you attend John Breen’s award-winning play Alone It Stands during its upcoming four-night run at Belfast's Waterfront Studio from October 10 – 14.

Six actors, playing 62 roles, will recreate some of the events of that famous rugby match, which was not shown live on television because RTE’s outside broadcast unit was needed elsewhere.

'I like to think that if you go to the play it will provide all the key moments of the match, and a few jokes as well,' explains the Limerick born writer and director during a break from rehearsals.

He adds that the game became all the more memorable for Irish rugby fans given that after Munster put the All Blacks to the sword, the southern hemisphere team went on to beat England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to claim the covetted Grand Slam.

'You have to realise that there wasn’t much happening in Ireland then. These were the days before U2, Riverdance and Jack Charlton’s army,' says Breen, who actually spent the famous day clearing glasses from the tables in his father’s pub in Limerick. That absence, according to Breen, helped rather than hindered when it came to write about the historic match.

'Something you haven’t witnessed yourself can grow to a larger size in your imagination. Not being there made it more evocative for me and easier to build it up on the page. It became the stuff of myths and legends. I was only 12-years-old. If I had been at the game, it would probably have been a fairly mundane experience and I would never have written the play.'

It would take an incubation period of two decades before Breen collected his thoughts and put pen to paper. Having studied psychology at University College Dublin, he then trained as a theatre director at the Abbey. As the 20th anniversary of the Munster/All Blacks game approached in 1998, he realised that the story seemed to be passing the Irish theatre world by.

'Someone suggested that I write about it,' he recalls. 'In doing my research, I remember reading a big banner headline in a newspaper: "All Blacks Crushed". But in a tiny box in the right corner of the page, it had: "Dan Canniffe, father of Munster captain Donal Canniffe, dies during the game".

'I thought, there is a story that has to be told. Donal, the Munster captain, wasn’t aware until after the game that his father had passed away. This tragedy rather got lost in the mix. It meant that the play could be more than just about the match. That gave it an epic quality.'

Breen permitted himself some artistic licence when it came to dramatising the day's events. 'The first two lines of the Haka are about life and death. We had the death and I put a birth into it with a scene in which a ruck becomes a labour ward. I also felt that the play needed a couple of characters who don’t care about the game. At the time, I was one of them.'

Having toured rugby club venues and theatres all around the globe, Alone It Stands is back on the road again in spite of Breen’s belief that it had probably run its course.

'It ran for nine years and I thought that was about it. But I kept getting letters and emails asking when it would be back again. It is a great David and Goliath story. Everybody loves an underdog and you don’t get much more of an over dog than the All Blacks, particularly at the time. They were like rugby gods.'

Documentary maker Brian O'Flaherty revisited the story in 2003 with Their Finest Hour (see above), while Australian director Wayne Harrison's 2002 production of Breen's play at the Sydney Opera House went on to tour around Australia and New Zealand.

'But the Aussies don’t revere the All Blacks in the way that we tend to,' says Breen, 'and there was a certain amount of poking fun at them, which didn’t go down that well in Auckland.'

Breen promises that the production at the Waterfront Hall will retain the sense of awe in which the All Blacks have always been held in the northern part of the hemisphere. 'Alone It Stands is about capturing and dramatising the folklore around that moment in Irish rugby history. We are showing respect to the All Blacks, but ultimately we beat them fair and square,' he laughs.

Alone It Stands runs in the Waterfront Hall's Waterfront Studio, Belfast from October 10 – 12.