Belfast Telegraph

Humble hero whose own daughter didn't even know he was a giant of the game

By Ivan Little

He was the humblest of heroes. And modesty could easily have been gentleman Jack Kyle's middle name. For no matter how many of the world's top sportswriters pleaded with him to let them pen a biography of one of rugby's most gifted greats, the answer in that soft Ulster accent was always a firm, but polite, no.

And it was only after a life-threatening illness struck in what should have been the mellower years of his retirement in the glorious scenic splendour of his beloved Mourne Mountains that the greatest Irish out-half of all-time agreed to tell the story of his exploits with the oval ball and with the surgeon's knife. Not to a journalist, but rather to his daughter, Justine.

And just a couple of weeks ago Jack gave the go-ahead for Justine to speak to me about the book, which was clearly a labour of love for her as she shared her father's good times - and his bad times - with the legions of rugby followers who still regard the Belfastman as THE master of his creative craft in the number 10 jersey.

Sitting in his back room in Bryansford with a view of verdant fields and the Mournes' famous stone walls, they talked endlessly into a Dictaphone of Jack's glory days; of his then record-breaking 46 caps for Ireland; of his legendary appearances for the British and Irish Lions, and of the famous first Irish Five Nations Grand Slam triumph in 1948.

But Jack also opened up to Justine about the self-sacrifice which had driven him to work as a consultant surgeon in the remote village of Chingola in Zambia, where he was to stay for 34 years.

Justine's book, Conversations With My Father, also included her father's more troubled recollections of his difficult divorce from her mother Shirley, who was the love of his life but who left him for another man in Africa. Justine, whose father was her best friend as well as her dad, knew the end was fast approaching for Jack who was in and out of hospital in Belfast for dialysis. She uprooted from her home near Dublin to be with him. Father and daughter wanted to spend as much time in each other's company as possible and they never ran out of things to talk about.

But then Justine did have a lot of catching up to do, because Jack had never been a man to boast about his rugby prowess.

Indeed Justine, who was born and raised in Zambia, didn't even know he played the game until she came to board at a school in Northern Ireland where strangers kept asking her what it was like to have a famous dad. Which was something she didn't know she had.

Her father's humility was such that it was only during the reading of a citation at the bestowing of an honorary degree on Jack at Queen's University in Belfast that Justine realised just how good he must have been to have earned the nicknames Ghost and the Scarlet Pimpernel. Justine and her brother Caleb obviously never saw their father play and for years they and other younger rugby fans had to take the word of older devotees about Jack's peerless skills on the rugby pitch.

But thanks to the advent of the internet and the easy access to Pathe News clips of Kyle in full flight, a whole new generation of fans has now been able to see what all the fuss was about the classy number 10 and why in 2002 the Irish Rugby Football Union named him the island's best ever player.

Six years later Jack showed that it wasn't just his on-field foes that he was able to beat.

He was diagnosed with multi myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, and the prognosis was bleak.

As a medic himself, Kyle knew the odds were against him and it was in the darker days that he told Justine she could write his life story, but with the proviso that it would be only for immediate members of his family to read.

The experts said Jack would be doing well to survive two years, but he confounded them and he told Justine he wouldn't object if she published the memoir for a wider audience.

Reading about Kyle the rugby man only confirms the legend, reading about his medical commitment is a revelation. He and his family lived the good life in Zambia but he could have made a fortune in the finest hospitals in the world, where he could also have traded on his international reputation as a rugby star, but he chose to be a pioneer in a part of Africa where he was for years the only qualified surgeon for miles around.

He often said he'd been influenced by the work and writings of Albert Schweizer, the German philosopher, theologian, physician and missionary in Africa.

But there's no record of Schweizer ever having performed one of Kyle's more unusual surgeries, not on a human, but rather on an orphaned chimpanzee called Doreen, who needed a finger amputated.

In the absence of a vet, Jack volunteered to carry out the operation, which was recalled many years later in a BBC TV programme presented by John Craven. During his first years in Zambia no one knew Jack Kyle was a celebrated sportsman. But a British visitor to his hospital recognised him and let his secret out, much against Jack's wishes

Justine told me that her father wanted people to focus on his medical work. "He always felt that rugby was a gift which just came naturally to him because he played on instinct. But I think he felt that the surgery was much more difficult to achieve." Jack himself downplayed his sporting ability saying: "These things are done on a subconscious level. The ball goes into your arms and suddenly an opening appears and away you go," he said.

Scores of Ulster and Ireland rugby wannabes will be wishing greatness could be attained quite so simply.

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