Irish rugby great Tom Kiernan dies, aged 83

Kiernan was both captain and coach of Ireland and also led the Lions

Tom Kiernan, one of the true giants of Irish rugby, has passed away at the age of 83. Indeed, in a career spanning half a century as player, coach and administrator, it's doubtful anyone has left a bigger imprint on the sport in this country.

A member of a renowned rugby family, he was educated at Presentation Brothers College, Cork and won schools' junior and senior cup medals with the college and played for Munster schools.

As a fullback Kiernan captained his beloved Cork Constitution, Munster, Ireland and the British & Irish Lions all. He played 54 Tests for Ireland in 14 seasons between 1960 and 1973, missing only three matches after a run of 52 games in a row when sustaining a broken foot in a draw with France at Lansdowne Road in the opening game of the 1970 Five Nations.

In his final Test against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1973, he scored a try and was then just one cap short of the then world record held by New Zealand's Colin Meads.

Kiernan captained Ireland 24 times and at the time of his retirement he was Ireland's most-capped player, most experienced captain, and record scorer in international with 158 points. He was also a two-time tourist with the Lions, captaining them on the tour to South Africa in 168 when he was an ever-present in the four-match test series and scored 35 points in the Tests, albeit in a losing cause.

He was part of the Munster team that beat Australia at Musgrave Park in 1967 - the first Irish provincial side to beat a major touring team. He played on the first Ireland team to beat South Africa in 1965. He captained Ireland on the tour to Australia in May 1967 and led Ireland to victory in the Test match, the first win by one of the "home countries" in a Test in the southern hemisphere.

At club level he also won 13 Munster Senior League medals, three with UCC and ten with Cork Constitution, and included 12 in a row. He won seven Munster Senior Cup medals.

As a coach, most famously Kiernan masterminded Munster's famous 12-0 win at Thomond Park over New Zealand in 1978, the only defeat which the All Blacks suffered in an 18-match tour which included a Grand Slam over Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland.

Then he coached the Ireland team that won the Triple Crown - the first in 33 years - and championship in 1982, and led Ireland to the top of the championship table again in 1983 when sharing the title with France.

Yet his greatest legacy was perhaps as an administrator.

He was president of the Munster Branch in 1977-78, the centenary president of Cork Constitution in 1991-92, was president of the IRFU in 1988-89, was on the IRFU committee from 1983-84 until 1999-2000, during which time he was chairman of countless committees and played a big role in creating the Irish Exiles in England.

One of Ireland's two IRB representatives 1994 to 2000, he was chairman of the IRB's policy committee and honorary treasurer of the IRB since 1997. He was a director of Rugby World Cup 1999.

Most significantly of all, Kiernan was chairman of the Five Nations and ERC for four years at what was probably the most difficult period in the history of the game after it turned professional 1995, and along with Syd Millar, Vernon Pugh and others helped to keep both competitions afloat amid an RFU go-it-alone deal with Sky and the demands of the English and French club owners which threatened to derail what is now the Champions Cup.

While England were fighting with the Five Nations, their clubs withdrew from the European Cup in the 1998-99 season, as did Cardiff and Swansea as a consequence of their own dispute with the WRU.

“There were nothing but difficulties during the first few years of the competition,” recalled Kiernan once. “A lot of bloody battles.” In 1999, such was Kiernan’s status in England that the RFU demanded his removal from the Five Nations committee as a condition of their re-entry. Neither Kiernan nor the committee budged.

Although Kiernan himself admitted the IRFU wanted to resist the advance of professionalism and retain their amateur ethos, along with Millar he devised the policy which brought the English based players home and provided the template within the four provinces and Irish rugby which has since flourished.

Kiernan subsequently reflected: “There was a debate going on within each country about the best way to move forward, so we had to marry a lot of conflicts. Wales broke up their club structure while England let their strongest clubs survive.

“We were fortunate because it was acknowledged that it had to be a provincial system because the clubs couldn’t possibly support it. So then it was a matter of working out the format, selling it to TV, getting sponsorship, paying expenses and all that.”

Hence, a non-negotiable in another tough battle was insisting upon and securing a minimum three Irish teams in the European Cup.

“Our problem has always been numbers,” he explained. “The fact that we could now buy players strengthened the provinces. We’d always been short three or four players, now we can replenish those so we were improving at a far greater rate than the English clubs for example.

“That was a crucial by-product of European competition. If all overseas players were banned I think we’d suffer the most because of that. And it has greatly benefited the international team. We had the structure which suited us and it’s been mutually beneficial.”

Millar, an old Ireland team-mate and IRFU and IRB colleague, once said of Kiernan: “What he contributed on and off the field, and the circumstances in which he achieved what he did at administrative level, marks him down as arguably the greatest figure in the history of the game in his country.

“Most people do not know, and in many respects that is understandable, what he contributed and the manner in which he handled the most critical situations. Some of the happenings could have led to the demise of the Five Nations and the European Cup. Tom Kiernan held European rugby together in those troubled times.”

Kiernan retired as a member of the IRFU committee and as one of Ireland's representatives on the International Board (IRB) in November 2000. He received the IRB Distinguished Service Award in 2001 and was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2015.

Ar dheis dé go raibh a anam.