Lions Memories: Jack Kyle’s major impact in New Zealand in 1950
Ireland legend put his medical studies on hold so he could join four-month tour
Jack Kyle scores a try against France in Belfast in 1953.
Dr Jack Kyle was voted Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player in 2002, more than four decades after he had last represented his country.
He first played for Ireland during the second World War in a friendly against a British Army XV but made his official international debut in 1947, the year before he helped Ireland win their first ever Grand Slam.
He went on to represent the newly named British Lions in New Zealand and Australia but, regardless of what he achieved as a fly-half, he was most proud of his 34-year career working as a surgeon in Zambia.
I first spoke to Dr Jack about his rugby career and adventures in Africa for my university newspaper in 2008, a few years after he had moved back to Ireland to settle in the small village of Bryansford, where he lived until his death three years ago.
Dr Jack was relatively small in stature, not much over 5ft 6in, having played in an era that rewarded guile and cunning over brute force. They called him “the ghost” as defenders grasped at thin air as he glided past them.
He told me his talent on the rugby field was innate.
“When you think of models, they have to look a certain way. They will be 6ft tall and beautiful. With rugby, it’s the same. I just happened to be born with something that meant I could go for a gap and just hope for the best.”
There is precious little footage of him in action, but what exists, shows an electrically quick fly-half who played almost completely on instinct.
Dr Jack postponed his medical studies – much to the ire of his father and mother – to join the four-month tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1950.
“It was a huge honour getting picked, of course,” he remembered with a wide smile. “But it wasn’t without its difficulties. I was studying medicine at university in Belfast and going on tour by ship for months meant postponing my exams for a long time. My father certainly wasn’t happy about me going. I just had to reassure him that I would study extra hard on the ship. The joy of those tours was the time you got to spend making friends with players from all over the British Isles you had never met on a personal level and reaching places you had only read about in the encyclopaedia.”
His impact on the tour was considerable. He played in 19 of the 29 games, including all six Tests, and scored tries against the All Blacks and the Wallabies.
In the first Test against the All Blacks in Auckland – a 9-9 draw – he scored a scintillating try, created another for Ken Jones and won a penalty that was converted by John Robins. The Evening Post reported: “It is doubtful whether one player will live longer in the memories of those who saw the 1950 Carisbrook Test than Kyle. He scored a dazzling try which will always hold a place on Carisbrook’s mythical rugby honours board.”
After the tour, Kyle was voted one of the top six players in the world by the NZ Rugby Almanac and the All Blacks paid him the ultimate honour by saying they wish he could have played for them.
“It was always very nice to hear nice things about something you did on a rugby field,” said Kyle. “But it was more about the friendships I made on those tours that continued for many, many years.”
Kyle ended his international career in 1958 at the relatively young age of 32 and decided to heed his father’s words and focus on his medical career full-time. He travelled to Indonesia because he fancied an adventure as a surgeon and he got one when President Sukarno decided that all foreign nationals needed to leave the country.
Dr Jack moved on to Zambia where he worked in a remote village hospital as the only surgeon for miles.
“I did everything, every kind of surgery. It was the biggest challenge, as I was doing things for the first time. But I look back and it’s a happy time in my life and one I am truly proud of.”
He told me his only regret in life was not keeping a diary of his time on tour in New Zealand and Australia.
“There’s so few of my friends left from that tour now, you really must try and keep a diary of everything you can. Those memories become increasingly precious as you get older. Although, in my mind I can always go back and hear the Welsh players singing, and see the huge crowds in New Zealand who always gave us such a wonderful welcome.”
I contacted Dr Jack again in 2013 to ask if he would sign a photograph for my dad as Father’s Day was fast approaching. The photo was special: Dr Jack, the Grand Slam winner with Ireland in 1948, shaking hands with Brian O’Driscoll, the Grand Slam winner in 2009. The passing of the guard in Irish rugby.
Without hesitation, he told me to call down to his house on the foothills of the Mourne Mountains. I reached his door on a quiet Saturday night and he waved me in, giving me a playful pat on the back. He was wearing a white turtleneck with a small tear in the arm and his snow white hair was standing on end. He was 87 by this stage and could have been mistaken for a kindly elderly professor.
His warm living room was filled from top to bottom with volumes on everything from Napoleon to Ernest Hemingway. If there wasn’t room on the shelves, the books were stacked haphazardly across the carpet.
We talked late into the night, with Dr Jack interspersing the conversation with quotes from Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. He was like a surrogate grandfather, offering fascinating opinions on a range of subjects.
He also wanted to give me advice on rugby – a decorated and revered Lion speaking to an amateur who was playing in London’s basement recreational leagues.
“I have always believed that rugby is a bit like life,” he said. “If you see the gap, you go for it. Sometimes it won’t come off, but at least you know that you did everything. Always try to play with a smile on your face, although sometimes that’s just not possible when you’re lying face-down in mud. The important thing is always remember why you are playing – and that’s for the love of it.”
His days as an Ireland captain and Lions hero were long gone, but he still couldn’t understand the fuss made over his rugby career.
“I threw a piece of leather about half a century ago. It’s amazing and flattering that anybody remembers at all, to be quite truthful.”