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Winning Triple Crowns: ‘Seeing Jack Kyle was a spiritual experience’

A history of Ireland’s wins throws up some mythical tales and unforgettable moments

Grand Slams went beyond the consciousness of children in the 1980s – unseen heroics by Karl Mullen and Jack Kyle – but Triple Crowns were known artefacts.

"The first rugby ball my dad gave me had 'Ireland Triple Crown' on it," Shane Horgan agrees. "I kicked that plastic around for a decade."

Mythical tales grew up around these men. Ollie Campbell framed in Beckett's Paris apartment. Moss Keane and Donal Lenihan sculling pints above O'Donoghue's on Baggot Street. Ginger McLoughlin carrying English foes on his back. Willie Duggan and the taxi. Michael Kieran's drop goal.

Ireland coach Tom Kiernan would let Keane slip over to The Swan on Aungier Street to calm his nerves, as publican Seán Lynch, a fellow Lion, would discuss anything and everything but the matter soon at hand, the porter buttressed by a free "one and one" from Paul Andreucetti's family chipper for the stroll back to the Shelbourne hotel.


And still, the night before playing Scotland in 1982, 40 winks would have to suffice.

"I thought of the greater players before me who had never won a Triple Crown. I thought of my family at home," the late Kerry man told Tom English in No Borders. "The worry of letting any of them down kept me awake for a long time that night."

This was before Stephen Roche and Charlie Haughey smiling on the Champs Élysées. Before Stuttgart and Ray Houghton. David O'Leary wasn't even in exile yet.

“It was a time of depression in Ireland,” said Hugo MacNeill. “Ten per cent unemployment, 50 per cent of whom had been unemployed for more than a year.”

Triple Crowns come in pairs – the 1890s, late 1940s, four in the 2000s split by a renewed desire to chase Slams, and 2018 at Twickenham, where Ireland return next Saturday in search of number 12 – but the stories pass down from father and mother to son and daughter.

"Have you read Conversations with my Father: Jack Kyle, written by Justine?" Campbell asks. "It is a beautiful book. Absolutely not about rugby. It's about him and his life. I'll post a copy into The Irish Times or leave it for you in Mulligans!"

March 10th, 1894

Ireland 3 Wales 0
The Ulster Cricket Club, Belfast

Wales sought a postponement.

"The Lagan had overflowed on the Ormeau ground shortly before the Triple Crown match," The Irish Times reported, and the "Taffies" cried foul as the "sodden and slushy" cricket green was "eight yards too narrow and six yards short".

The first Ireland team selected by committee also became the first to win a test match on English soil, at Blackheath, and that season they ran four three-quarters instead of nine forwards.

Ulster's Sam Lee led the resistance as Ireland, wearing "green with black shamrock", clung on "in the teeth of a regular gale" after John Lytle's "magnificent goal" to become the last "home union" to complete a Triple Crown.

IRELAND: Patrick Grant; Robert Dunlop, Sam Lee, William Gardiner, Lucius Gwynn; Walter Brown, Benjamin Tuke; James Lytle, John Lytle, Andrew Bond; John O'Connor, Harry Lindsay; Edmund Forrest (capt), Tom Crean, Charles Rooke.

March 18th, 1899

Ireland 3 Wales 0
National Stadium, Cardiff

Twice the "incomparable" Louis Magee came to the rescue as Ireland secured their second Triple Crown with a first victory on Welsh soil.

"Play had to be stopped time and again to clear the field," wrote Mick Ryan, who filled the second row alongside brother Jack, in the Rockwell College annual as Magee and Scottish referee AJ Turnbull pleaded with a 40,000-strong crowd to stop encroaching (the police wearing new uniforms choose not to herd hard-nosed miners).

Magee also proved the main man in the game, and throughout this era, with a try-saving tackle on Reg Skirmshire, ensuring Gerry Doran’s try was the only score.

IRELAND: Pierce O'Brien-Butler; Gerry Doran, George Harman, Carl Reid, Edward Campbell; Louis Magee (capt), Glyn Allen; Bill Byron, John McIlwaine, Newry Meares; Michael Ryan, Jack Ryan; Thomas Little, James Sealy, Cecil Moriarty.

March 13th, 1948

Ireland 6 Wales 3

"My mum and dad were both in Ravenhill when Ireland won the Grand Slam," says Campbell. "They only met subsequently and I was born six years later. I was weaned on the history of that '48 team, and particularly the immortal Jack Kyle. I don't remember him as a player but thanks to my dad it is like I saw every minute of every game he ever played. He was just in awe of him, which was passed to me."

The lasting images are Mullen and Kyle, but Des O'Brien's man-marking job foiled the dangerous running of Welsh scrumhalf Haydn Tanner.

Irish tries came from Barney Mullan and John Daly to cancel a "superb" effort by Bleddyn Williams.

“Souvenir hunters removed JC Daly’s jersey, and altogether everyone was in a happy frame of mind,” wrote the Irish Times rugby correspondent Paul MacWeeney.

IRELAND: Dudley Higgins; Bertie O'Hanlon, William McKee, Paddy Reid, Barney Mullan; Jack Kyle, Ernest Strathdee; JC Daly, Karl Mullen (capt), Albert McConnell; Colm Callan, Jimmy Nelson; Bill McKay, Jim McCarthy, Des O'Brien.

March 12th, 1949

Ireland 5 Wales 0
St Helens, Swansea

Daly and Paddy Reid defected to Rugby League club Huddersfield, but in came George Norton at fullback and legendary Young Munster prop Tom Clifford.

“Tom was one of the great characters you could ever hope to meet,” said Kyle. “He was one of these men that people instantly warmed to without ever having to open his mouth.”

Norton's place-kicking cleaned out Scotland, with a Kyle masterclass seeing off England before he conjured up a famous try for flanker Jim McCarthy that put Wales away.

Campbell: “First time I saw Jack was as a 19-year-old outside Lansdowne road, gliding through the crowd, in the turnstiles and he was gone. It was like seeing a vision. First time I met Jack was in that period between the Welsh match and Scottish match in ’82, in the committee room underneath the old west stand after a training session.

It was like a spiritual experience. So, for me, the Triple Crown will always be the period I met Jack Kyle.”

IRELAND: George Norton; Mick Lane, William McKee, Noel Henderson, Bertie O'Hanlon; Jack Kyle, Ernest Strathdee; Tom Clifford, Karl Mullen (capt), Leslie Griffin; Robert Agar, Jimmy Nelson; Bill McKay, Jim McCarthy, Des O'Brien.

February 20th, 1982

Ireland 21 Scotland 12
Lansdowne Road

Fergus Slattery was 33 years old.

“We would have won the Triple Crown in 1972 if those [expletive] from Scotland and Wales had come over to Dublin,” says the 70-year-old, who would be forgiven for fearing time was running out. “Ah no. You see, I was born the day of a Triple Crown win – February 12th, 1949, when we beat England – so I always felt it would happen.”

Slattery stole all three match balls to be autographed and auctioned for charity.

Campbell’s six penalties and curling drop goal cut through the wind.

“Amazingly, I was never so calm before a game. They would say now that I was in the zone.”

“Campbell got a torrid time before he could make his way to the dressing rooms,” wrote Edmund van Esbeck. “They cheered him, they shook his hand and, at that moment, he was the one man in Ireland who could have been certain to form a government.”

Even Sam Beckett tuned in.

"A friend of mine said Beckett had two things in his apartment to remind him of Ireland and one of them was a picture of me in full gear," Campbell laughs about the writer describing him as genius. "I think the other was a painting of the Ha'penny Bridge. Because of this, I was given a gift of a beautiful pencil sketch of Samuel Beckett. "

After a month of celebrations, any hope of the Grand Slam at Parc des Princes was ruined by Duggan’s unexplained hand injury on the Thursday night.

Campbell: “I am still pleading the fifth on that.”

Slattery: “I was out with him but, to be honest, I never saw anything.”

IRELAND: Hugo MacNeill; Moss Finn, Michael Kiernan, Paul Dean, Keith Crossan; Ollie Campbell, Robbie McGrath; Phil Orr, Ciarán Fitzgerald (capt), Gerry McLoughlin; Moss Keane, Donal Lenihan; Fergus Slattery, John O'Driscoll, Willie Duggan.

March 30th, 1985

Ireland 13 England 10
Lansdowne Road

By 1985 the 1970s heroes were gone. No Slattery, Keane, Duggan, Ginger or Campbell as Mick Doyle politicked Willie John McBride from the head coaching role after just one year at the helm.

“I retired with chronic hamstrings,” says Campbell. “I would have loved to have been involved with the way they played. My psychologist says I am beginning to deal with it very well.”

“Doyler had a vision that nobody else had at that time,” wrote Lenihan. “He was intelligent, he had great charisma, and he was a gregarious character. He knew how to get into fellows’ heads. From the outset he said Ireland were going to run everything.”

England coach Dick Greenwood said that Irish rugby would need a "brain transplant" for this to happen. In a devilish twist, a biblical downpour meant Doyler's philosophy – inspired by the Ella brothers – was shelved for the Triple Crown match against a massive English pack.

"Where's your f***ing pride?" yelled Ciaran Fitzgerald, the army officer, before Lenihan's rumble created a platform for Kiernan to loft the ball between the sticks and into a ballistic north terrace.

“As I looked up at the ball sailing over me it dawned that his was something special,” added Lenihan. “There are so many games and incidents that have faded from the memory over the years, but that moment, as soon as it happened, I knew.”

IRELAND: Hugo MacNeill; Trevor Ringland, Brendan Mullin, Michael Kiernan, Keith Crossan; Paul Dean, Michael Bradley; Phil Orr, Ciaran Fitzgerald (capt), JJ McCoy; Donal Lenihan, Willie Anderson; Philip Matthews, Nigel Carr, Brian Spillane.

March 27th, 2004

Ireland 37 Scotland 16
Lansdowne Road

Gordon D’Arcy’s year.

"An extraordinary talent has finally blossomed," wrote Gerry Thornley.

“Although Gordon (the unstoppable) D’Arcy was given man of the match award and played well, including running in two great tries, I would have no hesitation whatsoever in giving the award to the Irish captain,” was Donal Spring’s analysis. “Although he didn’t get on the score sheet, this was, for me, O’Driscoll’s most complete performance in an Ireland jersey.”

D'Arcy, paying tribute to Anthony Foley in 2016, wrote: "We had a wonderful day together at Twickenham in 2004. On first glance it looks like Girvan Dempsey's try came off a break upfield by a young centre.

“Look at it again. There is no luck involved when it comes to being in the right place at the right time in rugby. That try is not possible without Axel’s brain, hands and leg drive. The first Triple Crown for 19 years followed. It belonged to all of us, but Shannon and Anthony Foley can take enormous credit.”

IRELAND: Girvan Dempsey; Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll (capt), Gordon D'Arcy, Geordan Murphy; Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer; Reggie Corrigan, Shane Byrne, John Hayes; Mal O'Kelly, Paul O'Connell; Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Anthony Foley.

March 18th, 2006

Ireland 28 England 24

Shane Horgan's try gets better over time. Ireland were three points down in the 78th minute with a scrum in their own 22, when Geordan Murphy remembers Ronan O'Gara saying: "Geordie, you go left, Drico, you go right, and I'll chip into space for one of ye to go get it and run the length."

The bounce fooled Tom Voyce and O'Driscoll pounced to give Horgan a 40-metre sprint against Lewis Moody.

Horgan: “I tightened up, definitely, and just before Moody tackled me I was thinking, ‘winger caught by flanker is not a good look,’ and with Rog still running on my inside, for a split second I contemplated passing the ball behind my back.”

Sliding doors moment in your life?

“I could be the guy who tossed the ball away when Ireland lost at Twickenham!”

Moody hauled Horgan down five metres short of the line, O'Gara and Simon Easterby cleaned the ruck, O'Driscoll weaved infield to allow Stringer, with a fantastic pass, reverse play back to the right touchline, where Horgan's outstretched arm delivered. O'Gara nailed the conversion.

IRELAND: Geordan Murphy; Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll (capt), Gordon D'Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes; Mal O'Kelly, Paul O'Connell; Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.

March 10th, 2007

Ireland 19 Scotland 18

"This was when we really started talking about the Grand Slam," says Horgan. "Irish teams hadn't thought about it for a very, very long time. We had started to win things, Munster in Europe, so the Triple Crown was no longer a big deal."

Swallowed by historical events in Croke Park, a brilliant Paul O'Connell turnover and O'Gara's 19 points squeezed out a third Triple Crown in four seasons, but the aftermath of this game was coloured by controversy. Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan suggested that O'Gara was choked, in the very last ruck, but future Leinster lock Nathan Hines was subsequently exonerated of wrongdoing.

“It didn’t happen,” O’Gara revealed in 2008. “I did lose consciousness but not as a result of choking.”

IRELAND: Girvan Dempsey; Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll (capt), Gordon D'Arcy, Denis Hickie; Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer; Simon Best, Rory Best, John Hayes; Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell; Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.

March 21st, 2009

Ireland 17 Wales 15
The Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

After Paddy Wallace conceded the 79th-minute penalty to give Stephen Jones a 48-metre shot at the posts, the camera picked out Jack Kyle in the crowd, "shaking his head like a dog after a swim," wrote Mary Hannigan.

“As soon as the kick reached the apex of its flight I knew it wouldn’t carry the crossbar,” Murphy wrote in The Outsider.

“My ball,” I roared.

Rog appeared beside me: “My ball.”

“No, mine!”

Rog: “No, mine!”


Murphy caught it, keeping his foot in-goal before, unlike wise old Slattery, thumping the most expensive piece of leather in Irish rugby high into row z.

“A Welsh man called the IRFU a few days later, saying he had the ball and asking if he could get it signed,” Murphy remembered. “They asked him to drop it in and they’d get him some other bits in exchange. He hung up.”

Lost with JC Daly’s jersey.

IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll (capt), Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Ronan O'Gara, Tomás O'Leary; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes; Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell; Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.

March 17th, 2018

Ireland 24 England 15

The glorious zenith of Joe Schmidt's decade in Irish rugby. Twickenham sacked by stunning tries from Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale and CJ Stander, but what most people present recall is the bitter chill and rocks of snow.

A drop goal in Paris after 43 carries sparked this magical run to Triple Crown number 11.

Johnny Sexton: "I remember sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel [in '09], before we played Scotland in Croke Park, and Declan Kidney spoke about Triple Crowns being hard to come by, and I looked around and saw Ronan and Paul and Brian sort of roll their eyes up to heaven, as they had four of them. So, yeah, at that stage of my career I didn't think that all these years later a Triple Crown would be something I'd still be waiting to win."

IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong; James Ryan, Iain Henderson; Peter O'Mahony, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander.