Thursday 14 November 2019

George Hook: 'Kyle's dispatch rider' redefined role of No 7 and attitudes to fitness

Like all great players, the late Jim McCarthy went where the ball would be, rather than where it was
Like all great players, the late Jim McCarthy went where the ball would be, rather than where it was

George Hook

The Band of Brothers that is the survivors of Ireland's Grand Slam of 1948 was reduced by one last Tuesday when Jim McCarthy died aged 90.

Bertie O'Hanlon, Paddy Reid and rugby and soccer international Mick O'Flanagan are the remaining standard bearers.

If Donegal-born Dave Gallaher, captain of the 1905 New Zealand 'Originals', is credited with inventing the role of the openside flanker, then McCarthy defined and refined it for Irish consumption.

At 12st 7lbs (80 kilos), McCarthy was a light-weight, even by the standards of the time. Realising that he would be deemed too small for international rugby, he embarked on a training regime that was brutal even by the standards of long-distance runners. He became the fittest rugby player not just in Ireland but probably in Europe.

The result was that contemporary newspaper reports remarked that "the red-headed flanker appeared to be everywhere".

The Dolphin man was helped by the then off-side law, which was the position of the ball rather than the hindmost foot, as of now.


McCarthy barely deigned to bind on the scrum or remain in contact at the lineout, preferring to roam the open field, with World War Two veteran Bill McKay handling the close-in battles and Jack Kyle heading off towards the corner flag as a last line of defence.

Opposing No 10s simultaneously received the ball and McCarthy, prompting regular allegations of offside against the Irishman. Cliff Morgan, the great Welsh out-half put it thus: "McCarthy was not born offside, he was offside in the womb."

Although the Irish back-row of McKay and himself did not play open and blind, preferring to play left and right, the Dolphin man's telepathic understanding with his fly-half, earned him the title of 'Kyle's dispatch rider', never more obvious than in Swansea in 1949 when he scored the winning try against Wales to secure Ireland's second successive Triple Crown.

McCarthy, like all great players went where the ball would be, rather than where it was. Kyle had broken down the left and the flanker went towards the posts knowing that his fly half would cross-kick rather than die with the ball. He duly leaped high against the opposing full-back and fell over the line with the ball.

It was one of eight tries in 28 appearances for Ireland. Although he did not play in a Test match on the 1950 Lions tour to New Zealand he scored four tries in 12 matches, although that paled against McKay's astonishing tally of ten.

He also captained Ireland and finished his international career as leader against England in 1955.

That Lions tour was important for personal reasons. The team travelled by boat to the southern hemisphere and 'Jim Mac' was inconsolable in the cabin he shared with McKay and Kyle. He had met Pat O'Gorman, prima-ballerina with the Cork Ballet Company just before he left and was hopelessly in love.

Jim confided to his team-mates that he feared she might not wait six months until he returned from the tour. Not only did Pat wait but she remained his wife and primary care-giver to the end of his life. She survives him, as do six of his seven children. One daughter, Richelle, pre-deceased him.

Jim McCarthy was generous and thoughtful. In 1950, Tom Clifford, who was a simple working class man from Limerick was selected for the Lions tour. The Corkman unobtrusively looked after his Munster colleague on a six-month odyssey that would have placed a strain on Clifford's finances.

When the inter-provincial campaign resumed after the war, McCarthy instigated the idea of bringing kitbags full of eggs, sausages and rashers to his opponents in Ulster, where wartime rationing was still in force.

That was no mean feat at a time when there were eagle-eyed customs men on both sides of the border and it took three weeks to get permission to bring a car north.

For many years, my grandmother was the domestic help to the McCarthy family. After she retired, 'Jim Mac' brought her a Christmas gift every year until her death. It was typical of a man who was also full of fun and delighted in finding obtuse film questions to stump his friend, movie buff Redmond O'Donoghue at Waterford Glass.

In his later years his memory began to fail but my last meeting with him was at an RTE lunch before the Wales game in 2009. It was a reunion of the old Grand Slammers and in the company of Reid, O'Hanlon and the Jimmy Nelson, McCarthy was sharp as a tack.

This week Cork, Dolphin and Munster mourned.

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