Laying to rest the ghosts of 1948
March 18, 2009
JC Daly crawls free of a ruck during Ireland's famous win over Wales at Ravenhill in 1948 © Getty Images
Not least of the pressures on Ireland as they approach the title-decider in Cardiff will be the reminders of how rarely, and how long ago, they have won Grand Slams. It is a fair bet they'll line up for the anthems at the Millennium Stadium quite happy so long as they never again hear '1948'.
The one Irish team to have won a Grand Slam had their own historical incubus. In their case it was 1899, the last time Ireland had won a Triple Crown. They kicked off against Wales at Belfast on March 13, 1948 knowing that it was 49 years since their previous triumph - and in the meantime they'd fallen at the final hurdle eight times. Each time, under the unvarying championship timetable of the period, they had lost to Wales.
Two of those defeats, in 1931 and 1939, had also been at Ravenhill Road, the usual venue for meetings with Wales. The Welsh had not been to Lansdowne Road since 1927, the Irish Rugby Football Union reasoning that their more working-class support preferred the terracing of Ravenhill to the larger grandstands in Dublin.
Ireland were already champions. They had scored 30 points in their three matches so far - which looks low to modern eyes, until you consider that this included eight tries and not a single penalty. They were led from hooker by a 21-year-old medical student, Karl Mullen. In an age before coaches captains were more important than they are now, and Mullen's tactical astuteness was as important to Ireland as his finely-tuned hooking technique.
Wales included nine players from Cardiff, who were enjoying the best season in their history. Among them were such all-time greats as scrum-half and captain Haydn Tanner and centre Bleddyn Williams, with Newport wing Ken Jones also ranking as a historic figure.
Confronted with such brilliance, Ireland took the logical step of keeping it tight and playing to their forwards. Veteran Welsh reporter W.J.Townsend Collins recalled, "Their great play in the line-out, their fiery rushes and their speed in defence were gain to their side and discomfiture to the Welsh, who were unable to produce behind the scrimmage the individual cleverness and combined skill which in many former games had given them victory against superior forward play."
There were 32,000 - a ground record - packed into Ravenhill and the Daily Telegraph's J.P.Jordan reported a 'perpetual roar of 'Ireland' which rose to a crescendo when their tries were scored.
Ireland attacked from the start and were rewarded when they went ahead after 20 minutes. From a scrum on the Welsh 25 they attacked on the blind side and Jack Kyle, the brilliant outside-half still in the early stages of an international career that would last until 1958 and bring him a then-record 46 caps, drew in the Welsh back row before sending a long pass to Clontarf left-wing Barney Mullan. He had already come close to scoring and this time dived through Ken Jones's tackle - the watching JBG Thomas reckoned it a rare defensive error in a 44-cap career that would last as long as Kyle's - to score with both Tanner and fullback Frank Trott hanging on to him. Mullan, a makeshift kicker who missed more than he landed, failed with the conversion.
Wales responded positively and levelled the scores with a classic Bleddyn Williams try, a swerving run reckoned by Thomas 'one of the best he scored for Wales'. It was though, recalled Collins 'the one bright incident in the Welsh play'.
It was 3-3 at half-time, but after that the Irish resumed the ascendancy and ten minutes into the second half regained the lead. Wales won a scrum on their own 25, but were immediately dispossessed. Wing Bertie O'Hanlon kicked on, Trott was unable to smother the ball and two London Irishmen - flanker Des O'Brien and prop John Daly- led what Thomas reported as 'a tremendous race for the touch-down, which was won by Daly, just short of the dead-ball line'. Daly is reported to have said to O'Brien, "Jaysus, if Wales don't score again I'll be canonised".
There was still half an hour to go, but Wales rarely threatened. Collins reported of the Irish, "Their players kept a tight grip on the game, and skilled touch-finding gained ground and limited the opportunities of the Welshmen to gain possession."
Daly was chaired from the ground by cheering fans, his shirt torn to shreds. It ranks as one of the great moments in Irish rugby history - and was recognised as such at the time. Much less noticed, though, was the singularity of a four-win season. Collins recalled that 'Shining before them…was the mythical Triple Crown'. Thomas, writing in his 'Great Rugger Matches' a decade later tells the story purely in terms of the Triple Crown. Jordan did notice the achievement, but mentioned it after the Crown.
There was a reason for this. France had only just been readmitted to the championship after a 16-year absence and it was still assumed that any team good enough to beat its three home rivals would also beat the French. Not until a year later, when Ireland claimed a second consecutive crown after losing their opening match in Paris, would this prove not to be the case. England emulated this slightly unwanted feat in 1954 and it became clear that winning all four was now an achievement apart from and beyond the long-cherished crown.
It is no fluke, then, that the term 'Grand Slam' was coined in 1957 to greet England's all-four of that year. Since then only 12 of the 27 teams who have won the Triple Crown - and none of the five Irish XVs - have been capable of turning the Crown into a Slam.
Neither try-scorer played for Ireland again. Mullan departed with a record of six tries in eight appearances while instead of canonization Daly acquired the non-person status of players who went to rugby league. He and centre Pat Reid joined Huddersfield during the close season. It was not, though, the end of Daly's big matches. He won the championship final in his first season with Huddersfield, then played in the Challenge Cup final for Featherstone on their first, losing, Wembley appearance in 1952.