Rugby

Tony Ward: Seán Boylan, Liam Brady and why this Ireland rugby crop are the greatest

Conqueror of The All Blacks back in 1978, Munster’s Tony Ward knows the good times when he sees them

Tony Ward (left) pictured in 2014 with Mike Gibson
Legacy: Tony Ward, subject of rugby book entitled 'Legends and Lions' (left) pictured in 2014 with Mike Gibson.

Tony Ward is a name synonymous with Irish rugby. There aren’t too many Dubs written into Munster folklore. It takes a special player, but equally a special character.

Irish victory over the All Blacks these days is something he describes as “regulatory”. He’s as complimentary of this current era of Irish rugby as anyone possibly could be:

“The people who’ve lived through the barren times know how special these times are. This Ireland team right now, I believe it’s the greatest squad we’ve ever had.

“Not only that, but the rugby is a joy to watch.”

Back in 1978, times were so different. In fact they were different until a matter of years ago, until Chicago in 2016, when Ireland defeated New Zealand for the very first time.

CJ Stander celebrates after Ireland's historic victory over New Zealand, Saturday, November 5, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski).
A moment in time: CJ Stander celebrates after Ireland's historic victory over New Zealand, Saturday, November 5, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski).

It’s mad to think Munster conquered the most fabled team in sport almost 40 years prior, defeating them 12-0 at Thomond Park:

“I was in Chicago in 2016, obviously that was the first time, but beating New Zealand has become almost regulatory.

“Back in ‘78 that certainly wasn’t the case, but the magnitude of what we achieved hadn’t sunk in.

“We enjoyed ourselves that night, as was the way, and the following morning we were in the Old Jury’s Hotel in Limerick.

“I got a call from RTÉ's Mike Murphy, one of the big presenters at the time, and I was live on RTÉ radio.

“That was the first time that the significance of it all really struck me.”

Jack Crowley's form has played a major part in Munster's revival this season
Heir to the throne: These days Jack Crowley carries the duty of wearing the Ireland and Munster 10 shirt, just like Tony Ward did during his career.

On that fateful day, Ward kicked two drop-goals and set up the game’s only try. Soon he was to be European Player of the Year. That’s the kind of legacy that gives you legendary status on an island where we are so delicate with any level of praise.

For that reason, he has become one of a series of former internationals to be carefully extracted by author John DT White, as part of a new book entitled ‘Legends and Lions: Ireland’s Greatest Rugby Players’. And, when John asked Tony to write the Foreword to his book, Tony was only too happy to do so.

It’s a project that began with one Ollie Campbell as part of another book that White has in the works, ‘Rucks, Mauls and Dirty Balls: Ireland’s Journey to the Top of the World’, featuring every Home Nations, Five Nations and Six Nations campaigns that Ireland have competed in, plus Championship wins, Triple Crown victories and Grand Slam successes all mixed together with a few wooden spoons.

A fact, history and trivia book all in one with a Quiz Section at the end of it. The book is due to be published after the 2024 Six Nations Championship ends.

For Ward, seven pages of detail go a long way to adding newfound colour to a vibrant career.

As he takes a phone call on a spring morning bright enough to threaten the prospect of summer, it isn’t long before he seeks clarification on questioning.

With it comes an apology, one wholly unnecessary when the explanation comes:

“I’ve been struggling with my hearing for the best part of ten years. It’s as a result of knocks and bangs throughout my career.

“I suffered a lot with concussion and migraines when I was playing. We all think we’re invulnerable”.

It all feeds into what is arguably rugby’s biggest issue:

Is the game safe enough to ensure there are no adverse health effects for former pros?

Argentina v England – Rugby World Cup 2023 – Pool D – Stade de Marseille
Seeing red: England’s Tom Curry (left) makes head-on-head contact with Argentina’s Juan Mallia which resulted in a red card at the 2023 Rugby World Cup (Mike Egerton/PA)

In recent times, policing around head contact has become much stricter, although the World Cup just passed arguably saw more inconsistency than the Six Nations that preceded it.

Overall, Ward feels we are moving along the right trajectory:

“It can be nigh-on impossible for the guilty party to avoid head contact. In fairness to the referees, in general they get it right.

“The bunker system I think it’s a positive (new in-game review if a penalty meets the yellow card threshold).

“The one thing I would worry about is the game becoming too stop-start.”

Having stepped back from RTÉ commentary duty in recent years, Ward remains bound to so many things that have made him who he is today.

Among those are his days in education in Belvedere, days he reflects fondly on, and he remains friends with none other than Meath legend Seán Boylan.

“I’m quite friendly with Seán. He’s a great sporting man, and would you believe his favourite sport is hurling!

“I was chatting to Colm O’Rourke and he actually has Seán back involved with Meath.

“Whatever role he has it wouldn’t matter, he’d be a positive influence. He’s just a good person.”

Meath maestro Sean Boylan conducting a Legends Tour of the Croke Park Museum.
Showing the ropes: Meath maestro Sean Boylan conducting a Legends Tour of the Croke Park Museum.

Among the other big names in Belvedere was Pat Spillane, a man who drew attention having criticised the Irish rugby team after the World Cup exit, particularly taking aim at the “we lost but we won” motto, something founded on the team’s newfound connection with the Irish public as a whole.

Ward, unsurprisingly, was not best pleased with the Kerryman’s viewpoint:

“We’re all fond of going over the top, but I believe Andy Farrell is the greatest Ireland coach of all time. I think he’s taken it to a new level, following on from Joe Schmidt.

“Pat Spillane was in college with me, I’d know him, but his commentary really annoyed me. He doesn’t understand.

“With respect, stick to your own sport.”

Although Ward is a rugby man by trade, he played before the start of the professional era. A talented sportsman across several codes, he more than dabbled with the game of soccer.

Indeed, he played semi-professional for Shamrock Rovers. Born in Yorkshire, he is Leeds United supporter and a season ticket holder at Elland Road, while he was also a Republic of Ireland international at U15 level.

“As a child, football was actually my game. I’m a Leeds fanatic, I go over every two weeks.

“I was actually on the same schoolboy team as Liam Brady, and my first time crossing the border was for the game of football. It was a real novelty then.

“We played Northern Ireland at Shamrock Park in Portadown in 1970, and I remember we drew 2-2.

“With rugby, obviously it became a very regular thing going over the border.”

Dubliner Liam Brady (pictured above, right) with Giovanni Trapattoni during his spell as assistant manager with the Republic of Ireland) 
Right-hand man: Dubliner Liam Brady (pictured above, right) with Giovanni Trapattoni during his spell as assistant manager with the Republic of Ireland).

As a soccer enthusiast, what does Ward make of the process to appoint a new Republic of Ireland manager?:

“It’s a bit of a mess. It doesn’t inspire great confidence.

“Everyone seems to be avoiding it.”

That tends to be the case when Irish football has hardly been at a lower ebb.

While Irish rugby has finally got to the point where it no longer looks back on Munster and the All Blacks and 1978 as the greatest point in time, which is a fantastic statement and a sad one.

But it is still Everest. Only one group can be the Edmund Hillarys and Tenzing Norgays of this place we call home. Only one group can be the first to conquer the unbeatable.

For that reason, 1978 will always stand tall. For that reason, it will last the test of time in Irish rugby and beyond.

And pinned to the summit of that Irish Everest is a flag of royal Munster red, with three shimmering crowns, and inscribed is the name of a legend: Tony Ward.

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**Tony Ward was speaking to The Irish News as part of the campaign to launch a new book, ‘Legends and Lions: Ireland’s Greatest Rugby Players’, penned by John D T White, detailing the careers of 22 Ireland legends, from Jackie Kyle to Peter O’Mahony.
The book is available for purchase here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Legends-Lions-Irelands-Greatest-Players/dp/B0CTCKZYCL