Jack Kyle (1926 – 2014)
Padraig Coyle recalls the remarkable achievements of Ireland's greatest ever rugby player
On January 24, 1953, Ireland’s expectations for that year’s Five Nations Championship were heightened by the manner in which the team outclassed France to win its opening match of the series 16-3.
While defeat in Wales some weeks later would dent the team's ambition for the season, the 38,000 people packed into Ravenhill stadium in Belfast on that fourth Saturday of the new year to see the French being torn asunder watched in awe as Jack Kyle, Ireland’s captain, led by example.
Fly half Kyle’s impressive solo run, which ended in the first of four tries that afternoon, must have given him a huge sense of achievement on the ground where he had made his name in the sport. Kyle’s performance prompted the Irish Times reporter, the late Paul McWeeney, to rework the parody from Emmuska Orczy’s famous play, The Scarlet Pimpernel thus:
They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
That paragon of pace and guile,
That demned elusive Jackie Kyle.
Kyle died on November 27, 2014 aged 88, following a long illness, and when his life’s work as a rugby player and surgeon is dissected, there will be few who disagree with the discussions that are elevating him to the pantheons of sporting immortality and all round great guy.
John Wilson Kyle was born in Belfast in 1926 and his love of rugby developed during school years at Belfast Royal Academy, where he followed his older brother, Eric, into the Ulster team. When the emerging rugby star went to study medicine at Queen's University in 1944, he switched from playing fullback to out half.
Three years later, Kyle won the first of his 46 Irish caps against France. In 1948, the young medic was a member of the famous Grand Slam-winning side and the career that would establish him as the world’s most capped international player was well underway.
By the time he decided to retire from the international scene in 1958 with a couple of Triple Crowns, a Five Nations Championship title as well as a Lions tour to New Zealand and Australia under his belt, Kyle’s real purpose in life was already well in train.
Having qualified as a surgeon, Kyle’s urge to travel took him to Indonesia, Sumatra and finally Zambia, where he practiced his craft for more than three decades before retiring back to Northern Ireland and a new home in Bryansford, overlooking the Mourne Mountains, at the turn of the century.
During his time in Zambia, Kyle was employed as a consultant surgeon by the Anglo American Corporation in the copper mining community of Chingola. In an interview some years ago, Kyle remembered his early times in Africa. 'There were two hospitals in Chingola when I got there. They were open to everybody, not just the miners and their families, so it was a fairly busy life.
'But it was very interesting and extremely challenging. There were very few surgeons so we just had to do the best we could,' added Kyle, who could have moved on in 1973 when there was an economic downturn in the copper market. 'But the job was so exciting that I decided to stay on.'
One of the most iconic sporting photographs of recent time shows Kyle congratulating Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam-winning captain, Brian O’Driscoll, in Cardiff. Sixty-one years after having played his part in the previous Grand Slam success, Kyle was gracious in his praise and relieved that the burden of the previous six decades had at last been lifted.
In the wake of Kyle’s passing, the rugby world has been quick to pay more respects to the man who was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2002. Paul O’Connell, the Munster and Ireland star, told the BBC about the first meeting with one of his sporting heroes.
'I sat beside Jack Kyle at a dinner,' recalled O'Connell. 'He wanted to ask more about me, my family and rugby career than I could ask about his. He seemed to have been a humble, gracious man. My dad would always have spoken highly of him. He’s a big loss to Irish and Ulster rugby.'
Former Ulster director of rugby, David Humphreys – who played in the same position as Kyle for both country and club – regards him as the 'greatest rugby player who ever represented Ireland'.
'For me the thing I remember most is when I bypassed his record number of caps for Ireland and, as I came back into the dressing room afterwards, he was the one waiting there to congratulate me. He was a gentleman,' reflects Humphreys.
Perhaps, though, the final and most fitting tribute should be left to Kyle’s daughter, Justine Kyle McGrath. In her book, Conversations with My Father, published in July 2014, Justine writes: 'Being the daughter of Jack Kyle has no downsides for me whatsoever.
'I consider myself so lucky to have been born the daughter of such a remarkable man. My father’s legacy will be his rugby and his medical work, but I know that he will also be remembered as a decent man, and if decency were measured in stars then, to me, he is a galaxy.' No more needs to be said.