The man they could never catch is about to be overtaken, by a Gaelic football convert from the smallest county in Ireland.
Serge Blanco stopped running almost 30 years ago. Now in his seventh decade and no longer smoking for France, he is recovering from major heart surgery but no amount of inconvenient facts ought to detract from the feat of endurance within reach of Louth’s Rob Kearney. Described by his fashion house as ‘the Pele of rugby’, Blanco outstripped the rest as a box-office hit par excellence on such a scale that it’s taken this long for someone to catch up with him. There can be no finer tribute to Kearney than to put him on an equal footing with the peerless former president of Biarritz.
France in Dublin on Sunday will be Kearney’s 81st start as Ireland’s full-back, matching Blanco’s 81 in the same position for France. The weekend will also put them level on 93 Tests, each having won his first cap on the wing, Blanco against Ireland in Paris in 1982, Kearney against Argentina in Buenos Aires a quarter of a century later.
They also share something else in common, an unbeaten record stretching over seven years. While Blanco helped ensure that no Irish team beat France between 1984 and 1991, Kearney hasn’t lost a Six Nations match in Dublin since Wales won there en route to their last Grand Slam in 2012. Preserving the run for another season will ensure the holders go to Cardiff next week with a shot — albeit a very long one — at clinging onto their title. Given a fair wind, Kearney will then go one clear of Blanco and one behind the player to have been picked most often as a Test full-back, Mils Muliaina.
The New Zealander, unable to manage a try during 11 appearances for Connacht four seasons ago, made 83 of his 95 starts in the No 15 jersey, the remainder on the wing or in the centre. Another centurion, Percy Montgomery, made 80 of his 90 starts for the Springboks at full-back.
Kearney turns 33 this month with his sights set on one last shot at the World Cup. Blanco was 33 when he made the most anti-climactic of last stands during the 1991 tournament, a home quarter-final against England providing the perfect stage for one last blaze of pyrotechnics.
The old enemy trampled all over him from the kick-off, a grim reminder that time waits for no man, not even Blanco.
Now that he has lasted long enough to perform the monumental feat of catching up with the most charismatic of full-backs, Kearney ought to have enough time left for a happier ending.
The first priest to play rugby for Ireland made his debut in defiance of the then archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who requested that the new cap be deselected, presumably on the basis he had more important matters to attend to. Fr Tom Gavin carried on regardless, his presence in the team confirmed only after the intervention of some influential English friends in the church hierarchy. A centre at London Irish, his arrival for the first match of the 1949 Five Nations against France ended in a home defeat.
The archbishop’s motivation would hardly have had anything remotely to do with a desire to protect the young man from the profanities of the dressing-room. As Fr Gavin said many years later: “As a parish priest, you become pretty much unshockable anyway.”
That, thankfully, wasn’t quite the end of the story. For their next match, against England at Lansdowne Road a fortnight later, the Irish selectors decided they needed more clergy, not less. Long before it became fashionable, they went ecumenical on a scale still without precedent. Not content at giving their priest a second chance, they recalled a Presbyterian minister from Belfast at scrum-half, Ernie Strathdee. England lost 14-5 and Ireland went on to win the treasured Triple Crown, but without their newly-capped centre from Coventry.
Noel Henderson took his place and rapidly proved himself one of the greatest centres of the post-Second World War era. Father Tom, later to become The Right Reverend Monsignor Canon Thomas Joseph Gavin, went back to his native West Midlands, where his Irish parents had settled in the 1920s. Much loved in a variety of roles, not least as an educationalist, he organised Pope John Paul II’s visit to Coventry in the early 1980s, planning the logistics for a crowd of 375,000 at the city’s airport.
Monsignor Gavin died nine years ago at the age of 87. The Rev Strathdee, better known as an Ulster television sports presenter, was 50 when he lost his life in a Belfast hotel fire in 1972.
When they ought to have been thinking of nothing but a Grand Slam, the Wales squad began the week caught in the crossfire over botched plans to close down one of their four regional teams.
The Ospreys were supposed to disappear which left Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, George North and several more wondering whether they would have a team to return to after the Six Nations. The Swansea-based region had been earmarked to join the neighbouring Scarlets, though it sounded more like a take-over than a merger.
Submerge might have been a more accurate word for teams whose mutual dislike has been built on the solid rock of more than a century of tribalism between the Jacks (Swansea) and the Turks (Llanelli), a scaled-down version of Celtic and Rangers without the religious bit.
The Welsh Rugby Union sent chief executive Martyn Phillips to try and placate players unsettled over Union plans to kill off one of the four current regions to make room for a new one in the north at Colwyn Bay. One source described the reaction within the team room as “uproar”. Ospreys chairman Mike James resigned, slamming the Union’s “catastrophic mismanagement”. Rob Davies, his colleague who saved Swansea City FC from going bust years ago, stepped in and hours later the Ospreys announced that there would be no merger of a Scarlet hue.
So, instead of being locked into beating Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday, Wales hooker Ken Owens found himself fighting fires, contacting the Scarlets squad with assurances that they could still pay the mortgage.
France lost 30 of their first 31 matches after their admission to the Five Nations, a period that spanned 15 years. Italy have lost 20 on the bounce, which begs an awkward question: How many more can they afford to lose?
Barring a seismic hit on the Richter Scale, Twickenham on Saturday will be their 21st, with each defeat increasing the case for a Six Nations promotion and relegation, as proposed by World Rugby vice-chairman Gus Pichot in his bid for a two-division World League. Ireland and our near neighbours have good reason to leave well alone, to defend the status quo rather than risk exposure to the scenario of one calamitous season resulting in relegation. The compromise deal would be to guarantee the bottom country, almost certainly Italy, home advantage in a single play off against the top contender, almost certainly Georgia. Altruism is in desperately short supply. Sadly, too few at rugby’s top table know what it
Of all the clapped-out clichés trotted out in the name of sport, the one about having nothing to lose is surely the most idiotic. No Six Nations week is complete without somebody somewhere reaching into the bumper book of hackneyed phrases and giving it a whirl.
Gael Fickou did so the other day in a less-than-insightful look at how France view Sunday’s scrap at the Aviva. “Everyone sees us getting beaten,” he said. “But we have nothing to lose going into the game.” Nothing to lose? There is a Test match to lose, still worth trying to win in spite of World Rugby’s perennial failure to preserve the value of such fixtures by allowing far too many to take place.