Ulster Rugby vs Llanelli Scarlets

he’d elegantly, forensically, wielded an oval ball or surgical scalpel. To say that he was loved in Chingola is too small a commentary on the status and affection he enjoyed in the 34 years he lived there until he retired in his mid-70s in 2000. He was not known there as Ireland’s Greatest Player – as a 2002 IRFU poll decided – but as the man of medicine who not only healed but bound a whole community. Yes, he did pioneering work in the hospital he helped get built and staff, but he and his young family were members of that community, one reliant economically on the copper mines but a melting pot of native Africans and other ‘blow ins’ which generated a very special sense of belonging. Jack Kyle encouraged that, he was pivotal in creating that, and his legacy to, and in, Zambia lives vividly on, and on his last visit in 2007 he was embraced literally and metaphorically as the ‘father’ of that community. Yes, he faced challenging illnesses in initially spartan conditions, but every man, woman or child, of whatever hue, entrusted themselves to someone of huge spiritual wealth and a simple humanity which was only enhanced by his reputation as an outstanding clinician. Of course, Irish rugby has lost its greatest ambassador and its finest player, but such was his talent, his reputation and legend will live on as vividly as it did in life. At Belfast Royal Academy he first showed the wizardry which was to enchant and

In the professional game, of which he was an avowed student and of whose best players he was so gracious with his praise and his advice, he would have been a centurion. Tales abound of his exploits on and off the pitch with Jimmy Nelson, Bill McKay, Tony O’Reilly, Karl Mullen and so many more great ‘names’, but they were of a generation in which great sacrifice in terms of time and careers were made, happily. Inquiring minds were exercised through the game at which they excelled, and none was more inquisitive than Kyle. He read prodigiously throughout his life, and would quote the great Irish writers often. He adored Yeats, smiled with Wilde, and Rudyard Kipling – perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who would ply his professional trade in a colonial age – was sprinkled through many of the conversations he never appeared to want to end. Of the more recent vintage of players Brian O’Driscoll was a favourite, but he saw much of himself and his attacking, ambitious approach to rugby in David Humphreys, and before that in the stupendous Mike Gibson. They would become devotees of the great man, he regarded them as friends with values he shared and as superlative players. Back in Ireland he settled in the foothills of the Mournes, a handy mid-iron from his beloved Royal County Down, and for the last fourteen years, and despite the real challenges of illness, he played nine holes, dressed as nattily as always. His celebrity baffled him, but he loved still to be associated with rugby. To the Queen’s University club, where his half-back partnership with Ernie his father safe passage and a seat – as Ireland bridged that 61-year-old gap with a Grand Slam in 2009. “It’s one of the most iconic images in rugby as Brian O’Driscoll, captain against Wales that day, ran over to embrace Kyle,” remembers Humphreys. ‘It says so much about the man that he was so happy that the new generation of players had emulated the achievements of the 1948 side. “I was privileged to get to know Jack Kyle outside of the game, and his thirst for knowledge, his sheer delight in the world around him, was truly affecting.” Humphreys was to break Kyle’s record of Irish ‘caps’ at out-half, and the warm congratulations of someone who was such a legend of rugby remains a vivid, unforgettable memory. Willie John McBride, who has a wealth of stories about the public and private Kyle, said last week that it took just two words to define “a gentleman: Jack Kyle” His four score years and eight were golden in so many ways, but he confronted deep personal concerns with a dignity and decency which will surprise no-one. He was devoted to the welfare of his daughter Justine and to Caleb, and to their children, to his sisters Betty, Brenda and Beatrice, and the wider family circle which held this elfin figure in such affectionate regard. Life really cannot afford to lose – and certainly it cannot forget – people who by word or deed touch the very soul. Jack Kyle would have been embarrassed by the eulogies paid over these last eight days, but they were sincere and they were honest. Just like Jack Kyle. Strathdee was first forged, he willingly gave his time and his endorsement, and a bursary bearing his name is a coveted prize for the youngsters of today. Famously he was in the Millennium Stadium – his son Caleb having secured

dazzle the sport, and it is appropriate that one of his most important influences had himself been a teenage prodigy, and an international while still a schoolboy at Portora. Dickie Lloyd saw in Kyle the spontaneity, the guile and the commitment which had made him a uniquely gifted sportsman. Lloyd captured the imagination of the early part of the 20th Century, and Jack would eclipse even his immortal status. Kyle’s standing in rugby never withered after his relatively early retirement, as he moved seamlessly into what he

considered the most important phase of his life as a doctor. But a Grand Slam, followed quickly by two Triple Crowns, a personally triumphant progress through New Zealand and Australia with the Lions of 1950, assured him of his place in the folklore of rugby. Alongside him so often for North of Ireland, Ulster and Ireland was the man-mountain centre who was Noel Henderson, another giant figure in the game. They were the firmest of friends and then the closest of brothers-in-law, after Noel married another international in the Kyle brood, hockey-playing Betty. The images are caught tantalisingly briefly on film of the wily, crafty Kyle carving through the tightest of defences, the ‘minder’ Henderson on his shoulder, a three-quarter of great gifts himself. Together, ‘the little and large’ of the Ulster and Irish game, provided club, Province and country with a remarkable balance and set of skills in midfield. For Jack Kyle an adventurous spirit flowed through his veins, and of course it was publicly demonstrated in his rugby. In the days when defences were allowed within feet of the opposition instinct, courage and an alert eye and twinkling feet saw him mesmerise foes from all corners of the planet. He loved the game for what it freed in his mind and in his body, but he was no slave to it, and friendships made and places visited were the bonuses for which he was so grateful. It’s astonishing in these days of international sides playing perhaps a dozen Tests each year that Jack retired his green jersey in 1958 with a world record 46 ‘caps’.


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