Moss Keane.

Ireland and Lions forward Maurice ‘Moss’ Keane dies aged 62

Let’s do the statistics first. Mossie Keane was 6ft 5in and 20st at his heaviest. He was a top drawer international second row who won 51 caps for Ireland and one for the British and Irish Lions.

By Brendan Gallagher

Published: 4:59PM BST 05 Oct 2010

Rugby man: Moss Keane in action for Ireland in 1980 Photo: GETTY IMAGES

He helped inspire Munster to their famous 1978 12-0 win over the All Blacks when he took Andy Haden to the cleaners, and indeed performed wonderfully well in their 3-3 draw against New Zealand a few years earlier.

He was a very fine and athletic Gaelic footballer and Kerry under-21 full-back in his youth – he used to play under the name Moss Fenton to trick the GAA, who at the time banned their members from playing the “Brit” game of rugby – and was a decent and enthusiastic golfer in retirement before cancer took a hold.

But, frankly, to hell with statistics. At least on this occasion.They are virtually meaningless when it comes to assessing Mossie Keane, who has died a ridiculously premature death today from cancer, aged 62. The massive Kerry farmer was the epitome of everything we used to hold dear in the game of rugby, and secretly still do.

As the late Bill McLaren used to put it: “Maurice Ignatius Keane. 18 and half stone of prime Irish beef on the hoof, I don’t know about the opposition but he frightens the living daylights out of me.”

He was an iconic figure in Ireland and throughout much of the rugby playing world as well. There have been better international second rows – though he was top drawer by any criteria – but very few so instantly recognisable. He was “Rugby Man” writ large, his picture counting for a thousand words.

The most famous image is that of a dishevelled Keane, his head swathed in a bloody bandage after some piffling skirmish with the oppostion.

It’s up there with Fran Cotton’s famous mudman picture from the 1977 Lions tour as rugby’s favourite picture. The Man Mountain giving it his all. If the Daily Telegraph cartoonist Matt ever needs a model for “Rugby Man” he should think of Mossie Keane and nobody else.

Keane was a man of the soil and the farmyard, and his sense of humour reflected that. On his international debut in 1974 at the Parc des Princes the French pack went to work on Keane in trademark fashion and soon blood was pumping from a head-wound. Remarkably the cameras caught him laughing as he received treatment.

Why so, he was asked afterwards: “I just suddenly thought it would be handy if somebody had a bucket so we could make a few black puddings,” he told the incredulous press in his soft Kerry accent.

Ever the farmer, some nights up in Dublin for an international he used to slip out of the team hotel and go rabbit shooting on the back pitch at Lansdowne Road and then melt into the night when the police cars arrived, lights flashing following reports of shooting in Dublin 4. It’s a scenario that can’t fail to bring a smile.

In the wild west of Irish Provincial rugby he was the ultimate hard man, and Keane used to put plenty of stick about on the international field as well – although the battles were better policed in the great stadia of the rugby world. Being a proud son of Kerry, he was cunning as a bag of weasels too, a clever and cute operator in close confines. Contrary to popular opinion he was also extremely well-read, and took first-class honours in his Dairy Science degree. He later worked for the Irish Department of Agriculture.

In his prime he could be a force of nature going forward and Noel Murphy, when chairman of the Munster selectors, famously addressed him thus before his first big Munster game against the 1973 All Blacks: “Moss, you are no longer an experiment, you are a Munster man picked to play against the All Blacks,” said the loquacious Murphy.

“Just go out there and cause mayhem. Disrupt their line-out. Stop them getting quick ball. Stand up for yourself and your team. Kerrymen have won more all-Ireland finals than anybody else, you are afraid of nobody. Kerry are the All Blacks of Ireland. That’s why we picked you.” Strewth, they don’t do pre-match speeches like that anymore

Off the field he was quietly spoken and shy, but Keane could also famously neck 20 pints of Guinness without pausing for breath, walk steadily from the bar, and ask if anybody fancied “moving on somewhere else for a proper drink.” He was not a man to get in a session with unless you could book a couple of days off work to recover.

Colleagues still talk in awe of the flight from Dublin to Australia for the 1978 tour when he apparently left David Boon’s all-comers drinking record for the journey for dead. Survivors of that trip will not mention the exact figure for fear of being disbelieved.

As Keane, employing the famous logic native to Kerrymen, once put it: “I hear that some people believe that not drinking or smoking can prolong their lives. Well in that case they have only got themselves to blame.”