Monday 17 December 2018

Legendary hooker heralded Ireland's 'golden era'

Sean Diffley

WHEN the Irish won that first Grand Slam in 1948, beating the Welsh, the famous BBC commentator, G. V. Wynne-Jones, who was a Welshman, wrote a column in the Sunday Express and told his readers: "Karl Mullen, the Irish hooker, trounced James in the set scrums, and that formed the basis of Ireland's superiority".

That simple statement illustrates the difference from today's game when a hooker's duties are mainly concerned with throwing the ball to the line-outs.

In Karl Mullen's days possession from the scrums was, unlike nowadays, unpredictable. It depended on the ingenuity of the man in the middle of the front row of the scrum.

Until the arrival of Mullen, the Irish never had an expert hooker and were invariably outhooked by the opposition.

And England's speedy backs, for example, monopolised possession and consistently ran riot against the Irish.

But with the 19-year old Mullen, capped after World War Two, all that was splendidly altered. From Mullen's possession, that other 19-year old, Jack Kyle, presented with plenty of the ball, ensured Ireland had its Golden Era.

Legend has elevated Kyle, the natural genius at outhalf, as the single great influence of those triple crowns and Grand Slam triumphs, but the fact is -- in what was a double indemnity -- it was the talent of Mullen which paved the way.

It was, of course the amateur era and Mullen had to attend to his medical studies at the Royal College of Surgeons, then to his noted gynaecology practice and, in between, nipping out for a spot of training, just like his colleagues.

Captaincy

Interestingly, in some of his matches it was an all-medical front row, with Bertie McConnell of Queen's University and Jim Corcoran of UCC. Dr Matt Neely of Collegians was also a fellow front row forward with Mullen.

It was against France, in the New Year's Day win in Paris, that Karl Mullen, at just 21, became captain of the Irish team for the first time.

And it was the quietly- spoken Mullen who was to lead the Irish, in 1951, to an overall tally of of three Five Nations Championships, including the Grand Slam and two triple crowns.

Three Five Nations titles in four seasons surpassed anything in Irish rugby history.

In 1950, Karl Mullen was captain of the Lions in New Zealand, accompanied by eight Irish players.

They played 30 matches, losing six. It became known as "The Friendly Tour" and the official history of the Lions says that "the bonds between the two teams endure to this day".

Much of the credit for that was the gentlemanly leadership of the Lions captain.

On the club scene Karl Mullen was a stalwart of Old Belvedere and a prominent administrator. He was chairman of the Irish selectors from 1961 to 1964.

In more recent years he has lived in Kilcullen and the loss of his wife, Doreen, recently, was a severe blow. We will all miss one of the legends of Irish sport.

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