Doctor Karl Mullen: Rugby union player who led Ireland to their first Grand Slam and captained the Lions

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The Independent Online

Karl Mullen had to wait 61 years to finally get his hands on the International Championship rugby trophy, but it was worth the wait. The funny thing was that the first man to lead Ireland to a Grand Slam got more media attention when Brian O'Driscoll's side won Slam number two earlier this year than he had done in 1948.

In those days there was no trophy, the Irish selectors frowned upon players who spoke about their achievements in the press and you had to fight for every penny of your legitimate expenses at a time when many jobs were paying £3 per week. Fast- forward 61 years: the Irish Rugby Football Union earned a £3m bonus from their side's victory, while the players, too, did very well out of their success.

So it was a delighted Mullen who received the RBS Six Nations trophy at his home a few days after the 2009 triumph. Every one of the survivors from 1948 had been hoping for a repeat of their greatest victory and they all met up in March at Ravenhill Stadium in Belfast to talk about old times and will on O'Driscoll and his team. The passing of the captain of the great side of 1948 leaves half a dozen of that team left to continue basking in the glory of Ireland's recent rugby union revival.

In both 1948 and 2009 the Welsh stood between the Irish and glory, and the captains played key roles in two of the most famous moments in Irish sporting history. At Ravenhill on 13 March 1948, Mullen's final exhortation to his troops seemed to do the trick. "This is it boys. Boot, bollock and bite," he is reputed to have said before leading his team into battle. Ireland hung on to win 6-3 and complete the clean sweep of the four championship fixtures for the first time. The match-winning try scorer, Jack Daly, had his shirt ripped into a hundred pieces by the jubilant Irish fans before he reached the dressing room.

He, like his captain Mullen and the other players, became immortalised by their feats rather than rich through their efforts. Brian O'Driscoll, who scored a crucial try to lift his side in their victory push against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, led his team on a victory parade in Dublin, had tea with the Irish President and pocketed a £10,000-plus bonus for matching what happened in 1948.

But for Mullen, the mild-mannered medical student who was born in Wicklow in 1926 and trained as a doctor at the Irish Royal College of Surgeons, there was little other than satisfaction and a host of memories.

"We had a great feeling that we could achieve something that year," he recalled. "We had real talent. It was well balanced, and what set us apart was we had a very mobile pack of forwards. Everything was based on pace and movement. We were first to the breakdown, first to the lineout, and we were first to the scrum. I was a fitness fanatic and so, too, were players like Kyle and McCarthy.

"There was a trust and mutual respect between us all. A natural bond. To win the Triple Crown was the acme. The sense of elation lasted all that day and for a few weeks afterwards. There was a terrific sense of achievement, but no sense whatsoever of arrogance.

"We were all revered. I have found it amazing that, even in my profession, people will say, 'So you're the guy who played in 1948'. I just hope the players now enjoy it as much as we did."

As well as winning the Grand Slam in 1948, Mullen, playing at hooker, also steered the Irish to the Triple Crown the following season and ended his 25-match Test career with 16 wins in the green jersey. With two successive Five Nations titles to his credit, he was the obvious choice to lead the 1950 Lions on the tour of Australia and New Zealand, especially as the Welsh Grand Slam-winning captain, John Gwilliam, was unavailable because of work commitments.

Mullen was one of nine Irishmen on the tour, and he chose as his vice-captain the great Cardiff and Wales centre, Bleddyn Williams. When Mullen was injured midway through the tour, Williams stepped in to lead the side in two Tests in New Zealand and one in Australia. By the end, the Lions had drawn one of their four Tests in New Zealand and beaten the Wallabies twice. Mullen led the Lions in 17 of their 30 matches.

It was an epic adventure which started with a departure from Liverpool docks on 1 April and ended with a return to Tilbury Docks on 8 October. Mullen's men had not only charmed and excited the rugby folk Down Under, but the captain had won the respect of every player through the leadership skills he exhibited both on and off the field.

"We couldn't have had a better captain or nicer man to lead us," Bleddyn Williams said. "He was a fine player and he was marvellous off the field. He was not a tub-thumping type of skipper. He knew his game and he was a very positive sort of guy. We were all coaches on that tour and he leaned on me pretty heavily as his vice-captain because we had so many Welshmen in the squad. He took care of the forwards and I looked after the backs. He was very good to me and it was a very good and happy tour."

Mullen led the Lions into the first Test against the All Blacks and was unlucky not to register a rare victory; a late try from the home side left the game tied at 9-9. The second Test was lost 8-0, while he was injured for the final two Tests.

After hanging up his boots with Ireland, Leinster and Old Belvedere, Mullen went on to become one of his country's leading gynaecologists. He also became an Irish selector, as well as President of Leinster and the Irish Wolfhounds invitational side.

Rob Cole

Karl Daniel Mullen, rugby union player and doctor: born Wicklow, Republic of Ireland 26 November 1926; married (five daughters, three sons); died Kilcullen, Co Kildare 26 April 2009.

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