Jack Kyle: Irish rugby legend who led a life less ordinary

Sporting great who spent 34 years of his life working as doctor in Africa leaves rich legacy

 

Jack Kyle was the very best, the loveliest of players and the loveliest of menCliff Morgan

Justine McGrath recounts a story from her childhood. Born in Chingola, Zambia, she was sent to boarding school in Northern Ireland, the land of her parents. One day as a 10-year-old, she was “dragged along” to see her uncle Noel Henderson, an Ireland rugby international of some renown, playing a match for North of Ireland rugby club.

During the course of the afternoon, a steady stream of adults, mainly men, asked if she was aware of how famous her father was in rugby circles. She was puzzled because her dad, Jack Kyle, had never spoken to her about his playing days.

A decade later when she attended a function in Queen’s University to honour her father, a citation outlining his sporting achievements, caused her to declare to him that she didn’t really know him at all. He roared with laughter. Those vignettes are taken from an interview about her wonderful book, Conversations with My Father: Jack Kyle, and are borrowed to illustrate the innate modesty, the self-effacement without a scintilla of artifice, of John Wilson Kyle.

That’s an important starting point in discussing Kyle. He introduced himself as Jack, but to others he was affectionately known as Jackie or ‘The Ghost’, the latter a moniker bestowed to describe his knack for gliding through defences.

The rush to ascribe the term ‘greatest’ is a common sporting peccadillo but there would be few dissenters in applying the term to Kyle as the best of his generation, or any other, to wear the green number 10 jersey. There’s also no disputing his standing on the world stage.

Faultless in his handling

The New Zealand Rugby Almanac described him in the wake of the 1950 Lions Tour to New Zealand and Australia as “an excellent team man, faultless in his handling, able to send out lengthy and accurate passes, and adept at making play for his supports,” in nominating him as one of the six best players in the world.

 

Baroness Emma Orczy’s ditty about The Scarlet Pimpernel (in her book of the same name), was famously amended by former Irish Times rugby correspondent Paul MacWeeney to celebrate a virtuoso Kyle performance against France in a Five Nations Championship performance in 1953.

They seek him here,

they seek him there

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere,

That paragon of pace and guile

That damned elusive Jackie Kyle.

MacWeeney was not alone in immortalising Kyle’s prowess in print. Acclaimed British sports journalist, the late Frank Keating, wrote in his book The Great Number Tens: “Then, with a dip of his hip, and an electric change of gear, he left the floundering cover as rooted as trees and glistened pitter-pat over the mud 35-yards, the sodden turf ringing as he scored almost apologetically under the posts.”

Kyle was born in Belfast in 1926, was one of five children to John and Elizabeth, nee Warren. His father, an only child to a master baker from Derry, worked for the Edinburgh-based North British Rubber Company to oversee their operations in Ireland. The company produced everything from tyres to golf balls to rubber boots. There was no family history in rugby but that changed when Jack’s elder brother, Eric got an Irish trial and played for Ulster.

Jack was heavily influenced by his headmaster at Belfast Royal Academy, Alec Foster, a former Ireland captain, who also played for the Lions in South Africa (1910). He played for the Ulster Schools at fullback but it was on entering Queen’s University Belfast to read medicine in October 1944 that he came to senior prominence after a rival for the outhalf position, Derek Monteith, broke a leg.

Chemistry practical

Kyle received a note during a chemistry practical on a Friday afternoon telling him to be at the railway station in Belfast the following day as he had been selected for the Queen’s senior team to play Bective Rangers in Dublin. By the time Monteith (he went on to captain Ireland, albeit from the centre position in 1947) returned, Ernie Strathdee and Kyle were established as the college halfbacks.

 

He learned of his call-up to the national side by listening to Radio Athlone, the preferred method of informing players. He recalled: “You never got a phone call but you or your family had to listen to Radio Athlone on a Sunday night to see if you had been picked for the next match. I also received a stern warning about my jersey that if I didn’t return it straight after the game I would be charged for it. You had to bring your own shorts and socks and also provide your towel and soap.

“When I was playing in Dublin, you took the train down on a Friday morning, had lunch maybe at the Shelbourne and then a run out for half an hour or three-quarters of an hour.

“You’d say to your scrumhalf ‘we better work out some system of passes for tomorrow, nothing too complicated. We might have only just met. If I was going to the left I’d tap my left thigh, going to the right I’d tap my right thigh. You came back for a bit of a team talk. There was no coach, just the captain. Guys would bring out suggestions, like we might try this or somebody might do that. Then you had your game and on the Sunday morning you had you breakfast and went home.”

Kyle was the outstanding individual in Ireland’s first Grand Slam (1948) under the captaincy of Karl Mullen in what became a golden era for the national team. They won another Triple Crown in 1949 and two years later a Five Nations Championship. Welsh rugby was a strand woven through the fabric of not just his playing career. His first Ireland match was as a 13-year-old boy in 1939 when he watched them lose 7-0 to Wales at Ravenhill. Nine years later, as a 22-year-old medical student at Queen’s University, he played a pivotal role in the Irish team that beat Wales to win the Grand Slam at the same Belfast venue.

How did Ireland celebrate? Kyle recalled years later: “After the game we just had a meal at one of the local restaurants with the Welsh team, and then some of the players did their own thing. If I can remember I just went home afterwards. Looking back on it now, it was a more remarkable occasion than any of us realised at the time.”

The Welsh tapestry is completed in a lovely photograph that shows Kyle congratulating Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll as they stood either side of the advertising hoarding at the Millennium stadium in Cardiff, on the occasion of Ireland’s second Grand Slam in 2009.

Kyle made 46 appearances for Ireland, then a world record when adding his six tests for the Lions – it eclipsed the mark of the previous holder, France’s Jean Prat – scoring seven tries and a drop goal. When Kyle scored, Ireland never lost a match. He captained the national side on six occasions in a Test career that spanned 11 years, a duration unheard of in that era.

There are numerous examples of Kyle’s modesty but one that stands out came following his final appearance for Ireland against Scotland in 1958, a 12-6 victory. He was dropped for the next match but the then chairman of selectors Ernie Crawford offered him a chance to announce his retirement at the post-match meal to make it seem that it had been Kyle’s decision.

Great innings

Displaying a remarkable integrity, Ireland’s most capped player, replied politely: “Everyone knows that I am being dropped. I don’t want to stand up and say I’m retiring. I have had a great innings. No one could ask for a better time in the game than I’ve had.”

 

In 1950, he went on tour to New Zealand and Australia, with the party stopping off in Ceylon to play a match on the way home. They were his last games for the Lions. He played in all six Tests, scoring a try in the first Test against the All Blacks and another against the Wallabies. Bob Scott, a towering figure in All Black history, said of Kyle that he was “the best first five eighth (outhalf) he ever saw.”

The Lions touring party travelled to the Southern Hemisphere by ship, or more pointedly as Kyle recalled, “a boat that normally used in the transportation of sheep”. He told a lovely story about former Ireland fullback George Norton, who had a proposition for his team-mates on the month-long voyage.

“I remember dear old George Norton when he got onto the ship saying to us: ‘Now lads, this is your chance. You know that if you get your hair all cut off, it’ll grow much more luxuriantly during the voyage. You’ll never have a chance like this. By the time you get to New Zealand, it’ll be thick and glossy.’

“We said to George, ‘you go down and try it first'. George came up with his hair virtually shaved off to about an eighth of an inch. We looked at George and said, no, we definitely don’t want to do that. By the time we got to New Zealand, George’s hair had grown about another eighth of an inch, all of us pleased that we didn’t follow his advice.”

His parents died in the 1950s and Kyle had become increasingly focused on his medical career. From 1962 to 1964, he worked as a surgeon in Indonesia and Sumatra.

When Suharto pushed to become the president of Indonesia, there was a great deal of civil unrest and Kyle elected to return home to Northern Ireland but only briefly as he agreed to take up a position as the only surgeon in Chingola, Zambia, where he spent 34 years from 1966 to 2000 on three-year rolling contracts.

Travelling as a rugby player had ignited a wanderlust but he had been influenced by the writings of Albert Schweitzer, the German philosopher, theologian, physician and medical missionary in Africa.

By that time he was married to Shirley, whom he had met at Queen’s University and had a son, Caleb; his daughter Justine was born in Zambia.

Unfortunately, the marriage ended in divorce – Shirley suffered from bipolar disorder – but Kyle successfully fought to keep custody of his two children; not to the exclusion of his ex-wife because he felt her presence in their lives was important.

The breadth of his surgical work in Zambia saw him work on an in-grown toenail and on the same day carry out a life-saving operation.

He once amputated a finger on a chimpanzee called Doreen, who was experiencing trouble with her hands, simply because there was no vet in the area.

Kyle kept in touch with rugby primarily through the BBC’s World Service until he returned home for good in 2000 after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. He regularly graced the fairways of Royal County Down and travelled to Ravenhill, Lansdowne Road and further afield, most famously to the Millennium stadium for Ireland’s second Grand Slam in 2009.

Wonderful raconteur

He was a wonderful raconteur but the stories he told always thrust someone else into the limelight.

 

A favourite example is when he recounted time spent with Robert Blair Mayne, known as Paddy, a highly decorated second World War veteran, whose statue sits in Newtownards. Mayne was a former Ireland and Lions international team-mate of Kyle’s and Kyle couldn’t suppress a grin as he recounted how Mayne would carry him in and out of pubs under one huge arm, refusing point blank to let Kyle go home until he’d (Mayne) finished drinking.

Kyle fielded the verbal bouquets tossed his way with grace and utter charm but in an instant would redirect the conversation.

There was one quotation of praise he dwelled for longer than a nanosecond on.

“The famous poet Louis MacNiece was doing a radio broadcast in Belfast one evening,” said Kyle.

“He was asked that if he could make one wish, what would it be. His answer was that he would love to play rugby like Jack Kyle. That’s the compliment that meant the most to me.”

As a person, as a surgeon, as a rugby player, he excelled in every respect, leaving a rich legacy.

 

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