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.
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