That old Jack magic

Picture: PhotopressBelfast

Over 50 years have elapsed since Jack Kyle hung up his boots yet half a century later he remains one of Irish rugby’s most iconic figures.

Today it is Wales again — and a win will have Irish eyes picturing a Grand Slam again.

Just like in 2009 when at half-time in Cardiff, O’Driscoll called his teammates into a huddle to tell them “I believe in us” and O’Connell shouted as they went back out the door “We’re unbreakable! We’re unbreakable!”

Or just like in 1948 when again the sight of the red jersey and a shot at immortality prompted a call of defiance from the Irish dressing room.

Jack Kyle can still see John ‘Jack’ Daly beside him, thumping one fist into another and roaring, “I’m mad to get at ‘em! I’m mad to get at ‘em! I’m mad to get at ‘em!”

He was too, the loosehead prop from Cobh. The game’s decisive moment came when he carried Des O’Brien and three or four Welsh defenders over the line, as if he were again lugging wireless equipment around the north of Italy like he did during the war as a former telephone linesman for a London company. “If Wales don’t score again, I’ll be f***** canonised!” he shouted as he ran back, and since they didn’t, he was.

On the final whistle he had his shirt ripped from his back and cut into countless pieces to be sold off. Legend or myth has it that shortly after he spotted a woman sporting one of those pieces and they weren’t spotted themselves then for a week. By going AWOL, Daly lost his job. But it was okay. He had been canonised and more.

So was another player on that team.

Jack Kyle might have been beside Daly as the Cork man gave his pre-match battlecry that day in Ravenhill but Daly would admit one of the reasons he was so mad to get at the Welsh was in knowing he had Jack Kyle beside him.

They all felt like that. Jim McCarthy, who would become the record try scorer for an Irish forward, was asked decades later what was the secret of his success.

“Wherever the ball is, you be there,” he’d tell John Scally in The Giants of Irish Rugby. “When I was playing for Ireland the best place to be was two feet behind Jackie Kyle.”

His swerve, his vision, his pace, his greatness, his grace. Brian O’Driscoll is the only Irish player to have been so revered which was why it was delightful and fitting that the two men should meet and greet one another on the pitchside that Saturday in the Millennium Stadium five years ago. There was nothing formal about the old outhalf’s presence in Cardiff that day.

A friend of his son Caleb was going to the game and bringing his father with him so wondered why Caleb didn’t do the same. After the whistle Kyle was spotted in the crowd and ushered by a broadcaster closer to the pitch where a gleeful O’Driscoll spotted him.

“It was very kind of Brian to come over,” says Kyle in that distinguished yet grounded voice of his. “We shook hands and I congratulated him on the achievement of the Irish side. That was it. It was their day. We had our day.”

He won’t be there for today’s game against Wales. He doesn’t go to the games now. But he still watches on telly and he can still get around, drive his car, go for a stroll around the Tollymore Forest Park on the outskirts of the sleepy village of Bryansford in the majestic Mourne mountains.

“I haven’t been doing that much walking recently, much to my regret,” he chuckles lightly. “I’m afraid I tend to stick more in the heat of the house in this weather. But I still get out and about and am still enjoying life. I’m nearly 88 now. When you reach that age you don’t moan too much because not very many have reached this stage.”

The brain is especially still alert. That is his greatest blessing. He finds the biggest fear among people his age is that they develop some sort of dementia or Alzheimer’s but he’s been fortunate to escape any such condition. It makes aging easier, even very pleasant. Only two weeks ago he was down in Cork at the kind invitation of Cork Constitution as their guest speaker for the pre-match meal ahead of the AIL team’s game against UCD. In the next month he has two other similar functions. “It helps keep the old brain stimulated. You need to keep the neurons stimulated. It keeps the memory in good order.”

And what memories he has.

Rugby provided many of them. For that he is always grateful to the sport. He’s especially glad that it was a 32-county sport, in that it had a 32-county team. Kyle was an Ulsterman, born in Belfast, but while he could see the reason behind Phil Coulter being asked to pen a pre-match song for the national team, he says in his time every Ulsterman was glad to stand shoulder-to- shoulder with a southern Catholic to answer Ireland’s call.

“Those of us from the north were grateful when we put on the green jersey that we were representing the whole of Ireland. It was a much greater honour and achievement to play for a team made up of 32 counties and not just six. I found there was never any religious or political issue about playing rugby for Ireland. When we were in Dublin and the national anthem was played we turned around and face the flag and we’d feel fortunate. We were maybe visitors in this part of the country but you were still so proud to be wearing a green jersey in Lansdowne Road. It enabled us to make a lot of friends down south that we otherwise would never have met.”

While other kids of his age and religious persuasion never ventured across the border, he got to see Dublin when he was 17 playing for an Ulster schools select against Leinster. He’d come to like the place and people so much he’d study in the Royal College of Surgeons. Now his own two children live and work in the Dublin area. Just last month Kyle and his daughter Justine were in a restaurant in the city when who also happened to be there but Ronnie Kavanagh, the terrific Leinster forward that Kyle played with in the 1950s, and his wife.

Kavanagh could be a bit like Jack Daly at times. Before one game in Paris when he was ending his career and Willie John McBride was just starting his, team captain Bill Mulcahy asked his teammates had they any final words of wisdom.

“I suggest,” gnarled Kavanagh, “that we spend the next 80 minutes kicking the shit out of them.”

The dressing room fell silent until Mulcahy slapped his thigh triumphantly: “Bejaysus, men, we have a plan!”

Ronnie, smiles, Kyle, was the kind of player you were glad to have on your own team rather than the opposition’s, and Kyle was even happier to have met up and reminisced with him last month.

The people he’s met through this game, the places he’s seen. In 1950 he made the Lions team.

It took them a month by boat to get to New Zealand. Then, after they’d played and he’d starred over there, they crossed the Tasman Sea to play Australia where they’d win their two tests. On their way back they stopped off in Sri Lanka for an exhibition game. In all they were away for six and a half months. He never rang home. No news was good news. “I wrote letters to my mother, she’d reply and that was it.”

He speaks fondly of the games on that trip which would further create his legend, the New Zealand public and media hailing him as one of the best foreign players they’d ever seen. But mostly he recalls the travel and the company and friendship. Jim McCarthy would have been in the same cabin on the trip out. Sixty-three years later and they’re still friends, McCarthy and his wife Pat hosting Kyle and his sister Betty in their residence in Lahinch where they’ve played golf.

Karl Mullen was also on that trip. He was the captain of that Lions team, just as he was captain of the 1948 Irish team that won the Grand Slam. Decades later Mullen and his wife Doreen would stay with Kyle for two weeks in Zambia.

Kyle himself would stay there for over 30 years. He probably got the wanderlust from that Lions tour.

A few years after he finished playing, he decided to take up the offer of working as a surgeon in Indonesia.

“I always wanted to experience new countries and I felt that my skills would be more suited to developing countries, that you could make a real difference. There was also a feeling that it would be a good thing to get away from the ideas that people have of you. In Ireland you were Jack Kyle the rugby player. I was more than that and working in other countries allowed me to be that.”

He would stay in Indonesia from ’62 to ’64 until Suharto came to power and began evicting Europeans. Kyle then came across an advert for a similar post in Zambia and took it, working as a consultant surgeon for the Anglo-American Corporation. He was stationed in Chingola, home of the second biggest copper mine in the world. It was a village when it first opened in 1943.

It was a town when Kyle arrived. When he was still there 35 years later it was a city of over 170,000 people.

“The hospitals were open to the whole population but with so few doctors and surgeons and consultants I needed to be able to turn my hand to a lot of different fields of surgeries. Often if I couldn’t do it, it didn’t get done but I enjoyed that experience of having to frequently go back to the books and find out what I should be doing. I was a bit of a jack of all trades, and you would hope maybe a master of some.”

The locals were certainly appreciative. A few years ago a BBC news team brought him and his daughter back to Chingola where he was revered for his medical work as much as he ever was in Ireland for his wizardry as a rugby player. Some lives he couldn’t save; he reckons 80% of the patients in his ward during the 1990s were suffering from HIV-positive. But he saved thousands of others too and for him that’s how he remembers Chingola and it’s how Chingola still remembers him.

He was always going to return to Ireland some day. As it worked out that wouldn’t be until he was 74 but as he puts it: “I never emigrated either.”

Every year he would come back to Ireland for a few weeks or even months. When his children turned 11 they were educated in Ireland. Their children were born in Ireland. And with his three sisters still alive, home was always eventually going to be home.

Within a year of his return he was honoured as Ireland’s greatest ever player. He was suitably touched by that gesture but it’s not just modesty that makes him wonder about its validity.

Rugby is a completely different game now from what it was in 1990, let alone 1950.

“I watch the telly today and often laugh at how much it has changed. You look at the size of the guys. When we were playing the heaviest man was Karl Mullen. I don’t think we had a single man more than 15 and a half stone.

“Back in our day if you had a scrum inside the opposition 25 (22-metre line) the whole idea was to get it out before the opposition back row was up and give it to the three-quarters to make a break. Now forwards pick it up and guys try to force it over the line. In my time a Johnny O’Meara would get the ball quickly and dive pass to try to put the ball in front of me so I could run onto it. You don’t see that very often these days. It comes back very slowly and by the time you get it the opposition three-quarters are on top of you.

“There are still good players, good plays. Johnny Sexton made a very nice break against Scotland. Andrew Trimble played well. I’m always anxious to see the running game with tries being scored. Sometimes though that can be very few and far between. The defences are much better organised. I’m glad I’m not playing today!”

For him rugby is a game of spontaneity. At least it was in his time. The only game plans were like those which Kavanagh offered about what to do for 80 minutes against the French.

Sometimes alright Kyle would indicate to O’Meara how he’d want the ball from the scrum – “If I slap my right thigh send it out right – and if I slap my left thigh, send it left.” That was about it.

Whereas these days?! He doesn’t envy the current players for being professional either. “We were all leading careers and I think that was good for us. There was no money in rugby. While we got our hotel and travel paid for we had to supply our own boots and shorts, even on the Lions tour, but that was fine. We didn’t need a career when our rugby careers were over because we already had one. It’s very important for the lads who are playing today to be planning for life after rugby. Something like 40% of professionals these days are having to stop playing because of injury. What do you do at 26 if you’re out of the game and haven’t planned for it?”

So, now, he doesn’t wish he was playing now. This is their time. He had his. He’s happy he played when he did and how he did and with who he did.

As Karl Mullen would often say to him: “We had great days, great, great days.”

The shame is that many have passed away. Karl died only weeks after O’Driscoll followed him as a Grand Slam-winning captain. Kyle’s wife died the same year, which deeply saddened him, even though their marriage was long over. But his three sisters are alive, his three grandchildren, his two children. Old teammates are still around. Like Jim Nelson at 92, another friend and friendship still going strong over 60 years since they shared that Lions cabin to New Zealand. Like Kavanagh, who only the year before last cycled from Wexford to Dublin for charity. And like the people in Africa who he keeps in touch with.

Fifteen years ago or so Des O’Brien and a couple of other Grand Slam survivors visited Clongowes College where the priest said something that has stayed with Kyle. “You should look on the past with gratitude, the present with enthusiasm — and try to look on the future with confidence.”

It has been pretty much Kyle’s creed of life.

“A lot of things are what you might say serendipitous. Along the journey of life you just hope that they work out. I’m lucky that they pretty much have. I can’t complain.”


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