Jack Kyle (1926 - 2014):
Jack (or “Jackie”) Kyle excelled in two quite separate careers. He is rated as one of the greatest Irish rugby players – some have said the greatest – of all time and perhaps the greatest fly-half from any country. His medical career, much of which he carried out during decades spent in Zambia, saw him working almost single-handedly in a provincial hospital.
Kyle was born in Belfast, son of Elizabeth (née Warren) and John Kyle, a manager at the North British Rubber Company, Jack was the youngest of four children in this sporting family; his sister, Betty, would become an Irish hockey international. He attended Belfast Royal Academy, where apart from rugby he excelled at boxing and cricket. At 17 he was selected for the Ulster Schools XV and he continued with his rugby while a medical student at Queen’s University. During the War normal sporting activities were not halted but organised on extraordinary lines so that Kyle’s first international appearance was not recognised with a cap; he clearly made an impression, described by one commentator as “a pale, freckled medical student with crinkly ginger hair but also “the discovery of the season”. Rugby internationals after the War were re-established along pre-war lines though were still not wholly official in 1946 as the various rugby authorities noted the absence of so many regular international players still on military service. The match on 9 February of that year, at Landsdowne Road, Dublin was deemed in the match programme as “An Irish XV” versus “An English XV”. The same programme provided information about each player. Thus:
JW Kyle, Age 19. The discovery of the season. John Wilson Kyle was on the Ulster Schools XV two years ago and proved himself to be in the top class by his great display for Ulster against the Kiwi Servicemen in November, subsequently confirming that form against the Army. A particularly straight, strong runner, he looks to have a brilliant future.
This was perspicacious indeed.
Edmund van Esbeck, author of the definitive history of Irish rugby, has considerable praise for the postwar Irish side, and not for nothing did he entitle his chapter on the period “The Golden Years 1947-52”. 1946 had seen a series of unofficial internationals, “unofficial” as the international rugby system was finding its feet again in the postwar period. Van Esbeck wrote that while “that 1946 campaign proved one of no joy for Ireland, it did provide valuable experience for the players, two of whom were to make such an impact in the immediate future” namely Karl Mullen of Old Belvedere, Dublin, and Jack Kyle of Queen’s University Belfast.
1947, though it began with a defeat at home to France, the score was relatively close at 8:12, and it was also remarked that “Kyle, every inch an athlete, stamped his class and authority on the international scene in 1947 when the championship series resumed”. A year later the result was reversed, as Ireland travelled to Colombes to play France and won the fixture 13:6. Van Esbeck commented that the Irish side’s strengths were a magnificent pack of forwards, elimination of errors, increased ability to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves, and “to say nothing of the sheer genius of Jack Kyle, surely among the greatest of all rugby players”.
On 14 February 1948 Ireland faced England at the latter’s home ground of Twickenham, perhaps the most famous venue in the rugby world. This notwithstanding, Ireland won by the narrowest margin of a single point (10:11 in favour of the visitors). DR Gent, a former England international and long-standing rugby correspondent of The Times, enthused about the Irish side, describing it as “a great side and a great victory”. Kyle scored one of the three tries that day (in those days a try merited only three points, while a “goal”, or converted try, merited a total of five points).
Ireland’s next opponents were Scotland whom they met at Lansdowne Road, Dublin. The match ended in victory for Ireland who scored two tries to no reply from the visitors. Kyle scored one of the tries, described as “magnificent”; this meant that Ireland were Five Nations for the first time since 1936 and won the tournament at Lansdowne Road for the first time.
But could they win the Triple Crown and Grand Slam? The climactic fixture was the visit to Ravenhill stadium, Belfast of the traditionally strong Welsh side, on 13 March. Karl Mullen left a description of the tension before the match, Ireland’s tactical plans, and how as the match progressed the Irish team played “like men possessed”. The final score was 6:3 to Ireland, and Mullen’s account is full of praise for Kyle. “We decided on a policy of seeking to win through our forwards and the genius of Jack Kyle”; “Kyle was certainly the master outside the scrum”; “Kyle used the touchline superbly” are three memorable descriptions. Van Esbeck comments that Kyle played out-half “on the Irish side that by its victory over Wales in 1948 wrote the preface to a tale of glory that has become known as the golden years of Irish rugby”. It would be another 41 years for Ireland to secure the Grand Slam again.
In the 1949 season Ireland won the Triple Crown again and though they lost to France, consecutive Triple Crowns were rare. Again there were many plaudits for Kyle: his brilliant tactical moves, his “enterprise and thought”; he “not only possessed excellent hands and a fine turn of speed, but also had the facility for knowing just the right moment to seek and make the breaks. He was the outstanding back of that entire championship series.”
In the summer of 1950, the British and Irish Lions (then called simply the British Lions) toured New Zealand and Australia. Kyle was in the squad and the modern Lions website describes him as “a complete fly-half”. He played in 20 of 29 matches including all six tests, scoring two tries. His playing was widely admired. In the 1951 season Kyle "(s)till revealed the form that had captivated the New Zealand public, perhaps the most discerning critics in the rugby world. Kyle was a real match-winner and match-saver.”
If 1952 was the last year of Ireland’s golden age, this must have been affected by more sporadic appearances from Kyle. At Twickenham on 13 February at Twickenham he had to retire injured during the match and time was needed to recover.
1958 saw him make one of his last international appearances, in the Irish side first to beat a touring side, winning against Australia 9:6 at Lansdowne Road. His last appearance came on 1 March 1958, against Scotland, and though he did not play at his “brilliant best" but Ireland won. Kyle was winning his 46th cap, a world record then for international appearances in matches involving the International Board countries and France, and a record which would stand until 1970.
He continued to play club rugby for the North of Ireland club in Belfast until the early 1960s when he went to Indonesia for a short time, thence to Chingola, Zambia where for several decades he was the sole surgeon in a hospital of several hundred beds. Some people him knew him speculated as to why he did this; one view is that during Lions tours he was affected by serious poverty he witnessed, while another source reported him as saying that he was known as a rugby player but wanted to do more than just that. He retired and returned to Ulster where he settled ay Bryanstown, County Down.
He was held in the highest esteem and not alone by his fellow players. A man who could plausibly challenge him as the greatest fly-half, Cliff Morgan of Wales, reckoned that Kyle was the best opponent he ever faced – a compliment returned by Kyle. Bob Scott, the great All Black, against whom Kyle scored a famous try at Dunedin on the British Lions tour of 1950, said: “Of all of them there has never been, nor ever was, anyone to touch him.” However, in a perverse tribute, Kyle was singled out by the All Blacks for especially rough treatment, once being kicked mercilessly in front of the stand in the Auckland Test.
Nor was his fame confined to the rugby field. Irish poet Louis MacNeice who, when asked if he could make one wish, replied: “I would like to have played rugby like Jackie Kyle.”
His honours included an OBE, an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University, membership of the International Rugby Board’s Hall of Fame, and a lifetime achievement award from the Royal Academy of Medicine of Ireland. In 2002 the Irish Rugby Football Union voted him in a poll the greatest-ever Irish rugby player, a considerable compliment, elevating him above such giants as Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride and Brian O’Driscoll.
He married and had two children who survived him; he and his wife divorced during his time in Africa.
|Born:||10 January 1926|
|Died:||28 November 2014|
Edmund van Esbeck: The Story of Irish Rugby, Stanley Paul, 1986; “Remembering Jack Kyle's Playing Career” (video) www.irishrugby.ie; lionsrugby.com; obituaries: Daily Telegraph 2 December 2014; BBC website 30 November 2014; The Guardian, 30 November 2014
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