Mullen assured of his place in history
May 1, 2009
Mullen was given the Ireland captaincy in 1948, when still only 21 years old © Getty Images
The age in which Karl Mullen played may now be at the outer ages of living memory, but it had striking similarities to our own.
Mullen, who died earlier this week aged 82, played in a time when Wales and Ireland dominated European rugby. Between them they were outright champions in five of his six international seasons, claiming three Grand Slams and four Triple Crowns as well as 22 of the 30 places - a similar proportion to the 27 out of 37 in the party soon to depart for South Africa - in the 1950 Lions team that Mullen led to New Zealand, Australia and Ceylon.
Mullen was among the defining players in what, until the last few years produced a competitor, was undoubtedly Irish rugby's Golden Age. He was one of those players who emerges fully-formed at an early age - a talent whose precocity led to a first selection for Ireland against the British Army in December 1945, only a few weeks after his nineteenth birthday. It was Ireland's fifth clash with the Army and their first victory, by 19-3.
Mullen's team mates included Jack Kyle. They differed in many respects - Kyle was a Northern Protestant and outside-half while Mullen was a Southern Catholic and hooker - but shared a trade as medical students, continuing the remarkable tradition of rugby-playing Irish doctors, and would be linked as the presiding spirits of Ireland's post-war run of success.
Mullen became captain in 1948, when still only 21. It was, as Edmund van Esbeck has written, "A time when the tactics adapted by the Irish side were very much a matter for the captain". He was no dictator - regarding it as a matter of principle that every man should have his say in pre-match discussions - but was rapidly recognised a fine leader and astute tactician whose formula was neatly encapsulated by the Playfair Welsh Rugby Annual in 1949, "The best scrummage in support of the best hooker, Karl Mullen, and the best stand-off in Jack Kyle."
It was not always terribly pretty, but it made remarkably effective use of Ireland's limited resources. The Grand Slam was won in 1948 and a Triple Crown the following year. What became known as 'Triple Crown rugby' influenced other nations with John Gwilliam's Wales paying what van Esbeck describes as 'the compliment of imitation' in the controlled tactics that brought them a Grand Slam in 1950.
Once it became known that Gwilliam was not available for the Lions tour, there was little doubt it would be led by Mullen. His selection was a breakthough for the concept of 'British and Irish', as the first Southern Catholic and citizen of the Irish Republic to lead a Lions team. Mullen many years later recalled of the selection committee that, 'I think people were scared that I might have been a Fenian. I assured them of course that I was not, and promised there would be no politics."
He inaugurated another Lions tradition - that of Irish hooker captains in New Zealand, later emulated by Ronnie Dawson (1959) and Ciaran Fitzgerald (1983). Like them, he faced suggestions that he might be keeping a superior team-mate out of the Test XV. The case against Mullen was not nearly as strong as that against his successors, but deputy David Davies played the final two Tests. Mullen had twisted a knee in training but New Zealand journalist Terry McLean recalled being told by him in 1953 that he was fit enough to have played at least the final Test.
His team were happy - they have been immortalised in documentary film as 'The Singing Lions' - and popular. They enjoyed themselves without breaking the limits, although Mullen may be the only Lions captain to have been approached by a hotel manager with the words, 'Can you please tell me how the horse got into room 406?'
The Rugby Almanack of New Zealand reckoned Mullen 'a great leader'. All Black fullback Bob Scott, an astute analyst of opponents, noted a man with 'a well-trained and subtle mind; he also had a voice as soft as down and a brogue that slew his audiences' and saw him as 'a very fine player whose leadership could arose hero-worship among his men'.
Still only 23 - younger than all but three of the initial squad of 30, including all the other forwards - he was in sole charge on the playing side. Manager 'Ginger' Osborne was popular and highly competent, but did not intervene in playing matters. Scott reckoned that 'Mullen had lonely times' in the absence of 'the man outside the team' who might have acted as confidant and adviser.
The Lions, though fondly recalled in New Zealand for their attacking play, culminating in Ken Jones's brilliant try in the final Test, went down 3-0 in the four match series against an All Black team who put ferocious Otago-style forward play into ruthless action. While loaded with responsibility Mullen did not have complete power and was instructed before the tour that the Lions should play an open game. He later recalled, "If I had had my way we might have played differently…I was used to Irish rugby and that meant playing it tight. Here we were committed to a type of stuff which the Barbarians produce. It was very popular, but I feel that it cost us the series, or at least the share of the spoils'.
'Playing it tight' produced another Irish title - the third in four seasons - in 1951, but Mullen lost the captaincy to Des O'Brien for the following season and was dropped for the last match of the 1952 campaign. Not long 25, and with the same number of caps, that was it for his international career as medicine - specialising in gynaecology - took him to England for a while.
Ireland's second Grand Slam, 61 years after the first, and the selection of yet another Irishman as Lions captain brought his name back into the media in the final weeks of his life. Some life indeed, and one that deserves to be long remembered.