Tony McGahan recalls the most memorable occasion of his coaching career like it was yesterday - not four years ago where Munster went desperately close to repeating history against the All Blacks.
McGahan, who joined the Australian Rugby Union as the Wallabies' coaching coordinator in April, had the top job at the Irish province when a midweek fixture to commemorate Munster's famous victory over the 1978 All Blacks was added to the 2008 Grand Slam tour's itinerary.
An Australian with an appropriately Irish surname, McGahan spent seven years in Limerick and experienced two Heineken Cup triumphs, but the 18-16 loss to the All Blacks on a chilly, though heart-warming, night at Limerick's Thomond Park Stadium on November 19 eclipses those achievements.
"Everything about that game, from the pre-match atmosphere, the hakas and the game itself - it is the highlight game of my coaching career."
Although the All Blacks fielded a decidedly second-string team four days after beating Ireland at Croke Park, expectations among Munster's coaching staff, players and the 26,000 predominately red-clad fans that crammed the arena were inevitably low.
With ten front line players still on test duty and watching the match in Dublin, Munster were also seriously short-staffed, though the Kiwi contingent of Rua Tipoki, Doug Howlett, Lifeimi Mafi and Jeremy Mannering refused to take a backward step before their countrymen.
Their haka, as the All Blacks stood motionless, added a unique aspect to an occasion spoiled only by Joe Rokocoko's 77th-minute try.
"Mafi came out of the line, they got round him and Doug couldn't stop Rokocoko," said McGahan, without a twinge of regret.
"We had all those players out and the guys that were left, we didn't even coach them, we just sent them out there."
McGahan rightly assumed the significance of the match meant instruction and tactical appreciation was not required; motivation was not an issue as the Munstermen - who continue to revel in their 12-0 win over Graham Mourie's tourists - looked on approvingly.
At halftime, Munster led 16-10, thanks to a Barry Murphy try that practically brought Munster's redeveloped house down.
Australian five-eighth Paul Warwick added two penalties and a dropped goal reminiscent of Tony Ward's accurate boot 30 years prior.
Stephen Donald started opposite Warwick and was spooked by a crowd that fell silent when he lined up two penalties after the break and Graham Henry was alarmed to such an extent that Brad Thorn and Mils Muliaina were introduced off the bench in the final quarter.
They both had a hand in Rokocoko's mood killer, though McGahan remembers the fringe All Blacks that made a mark that night, not the seasoned veterans.
"That game was the making of a lot of All Blacks, look where guys like Cory Jane ended up," he said.
World Cup-winning prop Ben Franks also made his All Black debut that night, Liam Messam started at No.8 and Piri Weepu captained the side for the first and only time. All four could play a part in ensuring McGahan's second chance to outwit a New Zealand side also ends in defeat in Sydney on Saturday.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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