One of the greatest of all forwards
March 25, 2011
George Stephenson broke the Irish caps record of George Hamlet in 1928 © Getty Images
Few rugby archetypes have shown more staying power than that of the tough, durable Irish forward.
The long line has continued in the current team with players like David Wallace, Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, all now well into their second half-century of caps. One element in this is that because Ireland has a relatively limited playing base, talent is spotted and elevated early.
A good Irish player has generally been likelier than his English, Welsh or French counterpart to get an early chance to prove himself at international level. If he succeeds, a long career in the green shirt may follow.
Among the prototypes of this line was George Hamlet, who won the last of his 30 caps exactly 100 years ago, on March 25, 1911, when he led Ireland against France at the Mardyke ground, Cork. That number of appearances was not only a record for Ireland at the time, but the highest by any forward from any country.
While his playing career was associated with Dublin, Hamlet's origins were in the west of Ireland, in Sligo. His son, also named George, is still alive and a regular visitor to the Sligo club where he is regarded as 'father of the club', a past president with one of the main clubhouse rooms named after him.
Hamlet, who was born in 1881, attended Wesley College in Dublin. The later 1890s were a time when rugby was strong at the school. They won their first Leinster schools title in 1898 and sent a succession of high quality players to the Old Wesley club, which had been founded in 1891. The club in turn was to enjoy success in the first years of the new century, providing several players to the Irish national team and winning a first Leinster championship - and last until 1985 - in 1909.
Hamlet made his debut against England in Leicester in 1902 and was first of a succession that would also include his former classmate Billy Hinton, winner of 16 caps at fullback, and four members of the team that played England at Richmond in 1908.
He appears to have been a classical hard-working second-row forward, a warrior rather than an eye-catcher. John Griffiths describes him as 'a clever dribbler who often led the rushes in the loose, but he was also a solid scrummager'.
He, Alf Tedford (23 Irish caps) and Fred Gardiner (21) gave Ireland a core of forward continuity in a decade that was not quite as good as the one before - when Triple Crowns had been won in 1894 and 1899 - but still far from the worst in its history, with a shared title in 1906.
For much of the decade Gallaher and Stead's verdict on the Irish team beaten by the 1905 All Blacks held good: "If the Irish forwards had been supported by a better back combination, the result could have been problematical". Hamlet was among an eight that, while beaten 15-0, was reckoned by the victors to be perhaps the best they met on tour.
That Hamlet also retired as the most-beaten international player of all time, with 17 defeats from his 30 appearances, was down largely to Ireland's grim record against Wales in their first 'Golden Age'. Ireland went down seven times - and generally by large margins - in the eight matches Hamlet played against Wales, the contentious victory of 1904 the sole exception. Against England (4-3 and a draw) and Scotland (4-5), the results were more balanced.
He was Ireland's captain in his last nine matches and in his final season he was leader of a pack whose other seven members started the season with fewer caps combined than their skipper. The final year was one of the best of his career, although the Welsh maintained their hold - winning a Triple Crown decider 16-0 at Cardiff - to consign Ireland to second place.
France, who had won their first ever match by beating Scotland earlier in the year, threatened a second shock when they led Ireland 5-0 at half-time in Hamlet's farewell at Cork, with a try by Pierre Failliot, the hero of the win over Ireland. But Ireland took control after the break to the extent that the final 25-5 scoreline, including five tries, was not overtaken as their record score against Les Bleus until Brian O'Driscoll's hat-trick inspired a 27-25 win in Paris in 2000.
Hamlet's own personal records also showed some staying power, although Marcel Communeau of France had taken the 'most defeated' tag within a year. He remained the most capped forward until overtaken by the ill-fated Aime Cassayet of France, who died only a few weeks after taking record, in 1927. That was also the season when Hamlet was president of the Irish Rugby Football Union.
George Stephenson overtook his Irish caps record in 1928, but the mark for an Irish forward, equalled in 1931 by the irrepressible 'Jammie Clinch', the man who once threatened to 'make an orange out of' tough Welsh forward Arthur Lemon, survived for the rest of Hamlet's life. It was not until 1961 that Ronnie Kavanagh won his 31st cap for Ireland. Hamlet had died in October 1959, the obituary in the Playfair Rugby Football Annual commemorating him as 'one of the greatest of all forwards'.
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