The Ravenhill climax

 

When the 20th century dawned Ireland entered it as Triple Crown and International champions. Irish rugby was in a healthy state, the game was expanding in both the rural and urban areas and, crucially, in the schools. Having won the Triple Crown and Championship in 1894 as well as 1899, it was a reasonable expectation that such feats would be repeated in the years ahead. But that expectation was not matched by realisation.

As the years and the decades rolled by so the Triple Crown eluded Ireland. Eight times there was failure at the final hurdle, with Wales proving the insurmountable barrier in the final match on each occasion. The championship was won in 1935 but not the Triple Crown. In 1947 a loss to Wales in Swansea saw Ireland fail again at the final hurdle, but gradually a very good Ireland side was being built and Ireland had in the Queen's University player Jack Kyle the best outside-half in the game.

Australia came to Dublin and beat Ireland 16-3 in December 1947, not the most encouraging of signs for Ireland's championship prospects. But Ireland travelled to Paris to meet France on New Year's Day, 1948, and - with a side that showed six changes but which included only one new cap, the young, flame-haired Dolphin flanker Jim McCarthy - Ireland won 13-6. Remarkably the final trial took place after the match in Paris, and when Ireland travelled to Twickenham to meet England, hooker Karl Mullen, then a medical student, took over the captaincy from scrum-half Ernie Strathdee, who was dropped and replaced by a new cap in Hugh de Lacy. J C Daly returned at prop, Jimmy Nelson to the second row and Des O'Brien was a new cap at number eight. So the great back row of Bill McKay, O'Brien and McCarthy played together for the first time.

Paddy Reid, who had gained his first cap against Australia, has vivid memories of the match in Twickenham . "We were leading 11-3 and comfortable. England came back at us and in the end we were relieved to win 11-10."

Ireland beat Scotland 6-0 in the next match when Michael O'Flanagan replaced the injured Reid in the centre, and so not just another Triple Crown, last won 49 years previously, and Championship beckoned for Ireland, but also a Grand Slam as preparations were made for the visit of Wales to Ravenhill on March 13th, 1948.

"We had our training session on the Friday and then a team meeting on Friday night," says Reid. "Karl Mullen was a superb captain and he wanted everyone to have a say. We knew just how good the Welsh scrum-half, Haydn Tanner, was and had been warned about his ability to break.

"I suggested we appoint Des O'Brien to take care of him. I remember saying if Tanner scores we will blame Des, and if he does not Des will be a hero, and a hero he turned out to be as he nailed Tanner when the Welshman tried to break.

"The excitement prior to the match was immense, we were all conscious of what was at stake and that we had a great chance to become the first Ireland side to do a Grand Slam. But we also knew we had a very good team and we had a superb captain in Karl Mullen."

Ravenhill was packed to its then 30,000 capacity and the ground was throbbing in anticipation. It was 3-3 at the interval after Barney Mullan had scored a try for Ireland and Bleddyn Williams one for Wales. Over to the captain Karl Mullen: "J C Daly got a try for us in the second half and, after that, we played like men possessed, determined not to give anything away."

No Ireland side had previously performed the Grand Slam, no Ireland team has since attained the feat. A day and a team indelibly etched in the annals of Irish rugby.

Ireland (v Wales): D Higgins; B O'Hanlon, D McKee, P Reid, B Mullan; J Kyle, E Strathdee; J C Daly, K Mullen (capt), A McConnell, C Callan, J Nelson, W McKay, D O'Brien, J McCarthy.

Others who played in that season's championship were: Jimmy Corcoran (v France), Ernie Keeffe (v France), Bob Agar (v France), Jack Mattsson (v England), Hugh de Lacy (v England and Scotland), Mick O'Flanagan (v Scotland).