The boys of '48: Winning the Grand Slam for Ireland

If Brian O'Driscoll's side win in Cardiff tomorrow, they will become the first Irish side to claim the Grand Slam in 61 years. James Corrigan salutes the legends of a very different rugby era
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The Independent Online

Two notable things happened in the second week of March, 1948. The first primate was blasted into space, which might not have meant much to the majority in the world but certainly did to poor Albert, the rhesus monkey in the jumpsuit. And then there was Ireland winning their first and so far only Grand Slam. That definitely passed Albert by. But then, it did not mean that much to the Irish either.

The most misguided and inevitable of myths exploited in this emotional build-up to the Blarney Army's date with invasion of Cardiff tomorrow evening has been Declan Kidney's side trying to trigger the joyous Grand Slam celebrations of 61 years before. Yes, Ireland did celebrate on that famous evening in Belfast and until the day he died the try-scoring match-winner had the police record to prove it. But the reason why John Daly showed the way to a future namesake and embarked on his "night of high jinks" was because of a long-awaited Triple Crown. Grand Slam? Never heard of it.

The holy grail of northern hemisphere rugby had not even been invented then, at least not the expression (an anonymous rugby correspondent on The Times is credited with first applying the "Grand Slam" bridge phrase to England's Five Nations clean sweep in 1957). The Boys of '48 would have to wait before the true nature of the legend they had created became apparent.

The truth is that the modern Irish player has understandably become wholeheartedly sick of hearing about their pioneering forefathers and the comparisons that have always followed. Over the ensuing six decades, as Ireland teams have taken their determined and ultimately unfulfilled steps towards emulating the immortals, the good omens have been talked up and the ominous portents chalked up. This time around, many optimistic observers have been quick to leap on the fact that, just like in '48, Ireland first beat France, then England by a solitary point and then overcame a stubborn Scotland before finally facing Wales. But then the doom-mongers have had their nay-say, reminding all that in the meantime no country has spoiled their final-day party as often as Wales.

Four times Ireland have made it to the last day protecting a 100 per cent record and twice it has been the red shirts leaving them tasting dirt instead of glory. Furthermore, the last time Wales prevailed, in 1969, they won by 13 points; and that just happens to be the margin of victory Warren Gatland's team needs to win by at the Millennium Stadium to claim the Six Nations' title. No, history does not lend much hope. Not where Ireland and the Welsh are concerned.

Except it does, if Brian O'Driscoll & Co care to read between the lines of those record books and recognise the mental barriers that Irish side overcame on that afternoon at Ravenhill. They had their own millstone to untie from their necks and, just like now, it had seemingly been mined in the Valleys. Indeed, such was the hex their Celtic cousins held over them, Karl Mullen and their men could have been forgiven for having a bigger Welsh fixation than AA Gill.

"Ireland had not won a Triple Crown since the end of the last century and Wales had denied us on the final day on eight previous occasions," says Mullen. The most recent had come the year before in Swansea, making it six times in the last 12 Championships that the Dragonhood had hissed all over the green parade. "I suppose it had become the norm," recalls Bleddyn Williams, the brilliant Welsh captain. "The Irish would turn up with all the talk about the Triple Crown. And they'd go away with this awful sense of anticlimax."

But this particular year would be different; it was destined to be as soon as Mullen was appointed as captain for the match at Twickenham. A 21-year-old medical student – one of five in the team – at the College of Surgeons in Dublin, Mullen brought a tactician's mind and a motivator's heart to the role. Critically, there was also an inner confidence to trample over the nerves. "The extraordinary thing was the feeling I had that we couldn't lose that day, that the guys we had were so good," said the future Lions skipper. "I told them that if we played to our best, we would win."

No doubt his conviction had something to do with that other future doctor at fly-half. In 2002 Jack Kyle was announced Ireland's Greatest Ever Irish Rugby Player by the Irish Rugby Football Union; they might have well announced that Guinness was a black liquid with a white head. "They couldn't touch him," said his team-mate Jim McCarthy. "He'd play games and he wouldn't need to have his shorts laundered afterwards. Jack was just the best."

McCarthy was part of the back row, also featuring Des O'Brien and Billy McKay, nicknamed "Jack Kyle's outriders", such was the protection they would afford their playmaker. But against England, perhaps for the only time ever, Kyle needed protection from himself. With his team cruising at 11-5, Barney Mullan saw a penalty bounce off the crossbar into Kyle's hands. Inexplicably he threw a long and telegraphed pass, intercepted by the wing Dicky Guest who ran the length of the field to score. Suddenly, it was 11-10 and the Irish sighs were stifling. They survived. Just. "The final whistle," admits Kyle, "was the sweetest sound I ever heard on a rugby field. We'd won. My mistake hadn't cost us. It was relief more than anything."

And so the team arrived at the Belfast Rav. It would be tempting to report that all roads led to the home of Ulster rugby, but as the Belfast Telegraph revealed: "Motorists travelling from the 26 Counties had to obtain accreditation to bring a car across the border, enduring weeks of paperwork in advance of the match." Still, 30,000 were there, all peering expectantly at their 15 heroes of folklore. As usual, each of the players had learnt of their selection on Radio Athlone the Sunday before and had convened for their single, half-hour training session on the Friday afternoon. Mullen picked out the Welsh scrum-half Haydn Tanner as the danger man and detailed O'Brien to the task of sniper. All that was left was for Mullen's famous battle cry in the tunnel – This is it boys. Boot, bollock and bite – and the Irish were ready. Wales did not have a prayer. Or even a hymn sheet.

But they did have fists and they did have Bleddyn. The original "Prince of Centres" scored with an outrageous individual effort, while his forwards landed with a few of their own as they set about Mullen repeatedly. At 3-3 he kept his cool, knowing the moment would come and when Daly – a prop who would always do a somersault when running on to the pitch – touched down an O'Brien through-kick the island erupted.

"If Wales don't score again I'll be effing canonised," so the loose-head told his team-mates as they hugged him. Wales didn't and, alas, Daly wasn't. In fact, his shirt was destined to become more sacred than he ever would, ripped from his back as the crowd carried him off and sold in 100 pieces around the bars that night. Together with a few team-mates, JC, as he was known, ended up spending the night in the cells after a run-in with some Orangemen and after that his aftermath went from bad to perverse. Daly leapt off the train on the homecoming to Dublin, jumped in a sports car with a pretty blonde and was not seen for a week. He lost his job and when he sought to make a living with Huddersfield rugby league team with it went his sainthood. But that salutary tale was not about to blight the memories.

"To win the Triple Crown was the acme," recalls Mullen. "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 that the players now enjoy it as much as we did." In the Cardiff cauldron, if only that could be possible.

Jack Kyle: The medicine man on a pilgrimage to Cardiff

Dr Jack Kyle plans to be at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday hoping that Brian O'Driscoll's squad can emulate the feat of that 1948 Grand Slam team.

Kyle, now retired and living in Co Down, near his beloved Mourne Mountains, is making excellent progress after a serious setback last October and a spell of chemotherapy. "I have been promised a treat, a ticket and a trip by my son Caleb," he says. "We leave from Dublin in the morning and come back that night after the game."

Kyle is one of eight survivors of the Irish Grand Slam team – the others are Bertie O'Hanlon, Jimmy Nelson, Karl Mullen, Michael O'Flanagan, Jim McCarthy, Paddy Reid and Colm Callan. Kyle made 46 appearances for Ireland between 1947 and 1958 and toured New Zealand with the Lions. After retiring from club rugby in 1963, Kyle embarked on humanitarian work in Sumatra and Indonesia. Between 1966 and 2000 he worked as a consultant surgeon in Chingola, Zambia.