With over 50 caps, a triple crown, a Lions tour and a New Zealand scalp in that famous Munster win, Moss Keane is quite simply a legend in Irish rugby. On the eve of the Lions’ first test, the farmer’s son talks tous.
You hear Moss Keane before you see him. He has a voice that matches his stature and personality: big, gregarious and still strongly influenced by the mid Kerry hills where he grew up.
When he arrives in the sleepy hotel, people suddenly materialise out of the woodwork to give their regards and acknowledge the big man. That’s what happens when you’re a legend. Keane takes it all in his 6’5" stride.
When I remark on the strength of his accent, despite leaving the Kingdom over 30 years ago, his lightening reply is: "It’s the tone deafness!" This self-deprecating wit and banter is typical of the man and a product of a marathon career in the Lions, Irish, Munster and Landsdowne colours.
Yet, as Keane readily admits himself, it may never have happened at all. "A person coming from my background would definitely have missed the boat," he wrote in his recent autobiography, Rucks, Mauls and Gaelic Footballs. He was referring to the fact that he was 22 years old before he ever held an oval ball in his hands.
Up to then, his one ambition had been to tog out for the Kerry senior football team. Despite not even making the grade for the school team at St Brendan’s in the ’60s, Keane developed into a formidable athlete in his early 20s. He captained UCC to a historic win in the Sigerson Cup and got to two All-Ireland finals with the Kerry Juniors. But he always had a niggling doubt about his natural ability to compete in the top flight of Gaelic football. "There were times when I was in tight situations, when I felt like a man trying to turn an articulated lorry in a bathroom," he says of his GAA days.
He was also developing a reputation for his prowess off the pitch, often leading the charge in legendary drinking sessions after matches. But it was through this social network that Keane was persuaded one night to tog out for a friendly between UCC’s GAA team and some members of the rugby club. The big, rangy Kerryman realised he’d found a sport that suited him perfectly.
There was one problem. This was back in the days of the "dual-player" ban that forbade GAA players to even attend - let alone play - "foreign" sports such as rugby or soccer.
Stasi-like spies kept a constant eye out for players who fancied crossing the line. Keane was a prime target in his high-profile position with UCC GAA. His first official rugby match was a huge risk.
Despite that, he lined out under the false name Moss Fenton.
Keane found himself enjoying every minute of rugby, both on and off the pitch. Fortunately for Irish rugby, he was surprised by the absence of the rugby stereotype. "If they had been a shower of snobby city boys, with accents and too many manners, I would have given the game up straight away," he recalls.
Less than three years later, Keane was lining out for Ireland in his first International in Paris. It was the start of a run that would see him keep his place on the team for every single Five Nations game for the next 11 years. During that time, he helped Ireland to its first Triple Crown in 33 years.
He was also part of the now-legendary Munster team that beat the All Blacks at Thomond in 1978. Five years earlier, he had faced the New Zealanders in the same Munster shirt. But that was in only his second year of playing the game, and he was still unsure about how he was to play. As he says himself: "It was like at Mass, when you’re not sure whether to stand up or sit down at different parts of the service."
But Keane is reluctant to milk that victory any more than it already has been. "I get embarrassed when people talk of how we humiliated the All Blacks. We didn’t. We beat them, that was all."
Keane was also picked for not one but two Lions tours. He was seen as a "good tourist" - somebody who was able to get on well with what was essentially a bunch of arch rivals.
When Keane finally hung up his boots in 1984, he had nothing left to prove. The years have taken their toll on him physically, but he still enjoys a weekly game of golf. He works with the Department of Agriculture, helping administer EU funding and regulations for dairy processors in Leinster.
Despite a recent scare with cancer, he is responding well to treatment with encouraging results and still looks forward to many more years working for the Department and helping out with various charities. As he says himself: "Retirement mightn’t be all it’s cracked up to be either." Still the battler, still the warrior.
The Lions’ chances: They have their work cut out, but I hope they do well.
Touring with the Lions: On the surface, everything is always fine, but it’s just papering over the cracks. These are often your arch rivals.
Fitness: I didn’t realise it, but the farm was a great gym. Guys were more naturally fit in my day. We’d only train once a week and never look at a rugby ball all summer. We’d be blown out of it by today’s players.
Rugby: Back in my day, rugby was dangerous but plentiful and sex was safe. These days I think it’s more like the opposite.
Money: In my day, there were only really opportunities for the guys who played in the fancy positions. There was more money in kicking balls than heads!
Irish rugby: We’ve come through a golden era, and Irish rugby continues to punch way above its weight.
Modern players: Back in my day, we used to talk about the session we’d had the night before. Now players probably spend more time talking about their bonuses.
Croke Park: It’s great that they opened Croke Park up to rugby, but it’s a terrible venue to watch a match. Rugby needs the crowd to be on top of the game.
Rugby vs GAA: GAA men have nothing to be worrying about.