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Ivan Little on Jack Kyle: Many were in awe of Kyle's wizardry on the field, but it was as the surgeon and the family man that he made his mark in the world

In death as in life, Jack Kyle, the very public and revered rugby genius, got his own little bit of privacy, insisting on a quiet family funeral before hundreds of his admirers got the chance to join his loved ones to give thanks for his life.

And so in the absence of the legend himself, scores of famous rugby stars past and present gathered to celebrate the remarkable 88 years of a truly outstanding sportsman and surgeon, described by a friend as a "great and good man", and a gifted genius by others.

The service was held in his old church, Fisherwick Presbyterian on the Malone Road in south Belfast, just a Jack Kyle dash away from Queen's University, where he honed his skills as a rugby player and as a doctor.

And the diverse strands of his life were underpinned in a simple but moving moment as his three grandchildren walked to the front of the church carrying their beloved grandfather's treasured keepsakes -his Irish cap and jersey, his stethoscope and a medal in recognition of his services to medicine from the Royal College of Surgeons.

Nothing about the service had been left to chance, for Jack Kyle organised it right down to the last detail, picking the hymns, the scripture readings and the poems, including one he asked his son Caleb to read in 2008, when he thought he was about to succumb to cancer.

He had no say, of course, about the glowing content of the eulogies, but friends reckoned he would have been delighted by the fact that so little of the praise centred on his rugby.

Instead, it was Jack Kyle the family man and his self-sacrifice as a surgeon for 34 years in the middle of nowhere in a town called Chingola in Zambia that speaker after speaker highlighted. They all made the point that he could have made a fortune, an easier life and a glittering career for himself anywhere other than the place he chose to settle.

But daughter Justine and Caleb have made it clear he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Justine, who has just written a book about her father, read a passage from the Bible and Caleb thanked medics, friends and family for making their father's final days as dignified as possible in the home he adored at the foot of the Mournes in Bryansford.

Kyle's sporting achievements may not have figured high on the agenda of the service but outside the church a veritable who's who of Irish rugby's finest talked up the prowess of the man few of them had ever seen in all his pomp and style.

The mourners included Mike Gibson, Rory Best, David Humphreys, Tommy Bowe, Nigel Ringland and Andrew Trimble, but only Willie John McBride had vague recollections of ever playing against the Grand Slam winner of 1948 at the start of his career and towards the end of Jack's. All the others had to rely instead on hand-me-down stories of Kyle's wizardry or the occasional glimpse of old black and white newsreel footage to attest to the pace, balance and guile that earned him the title of Ireland's greatest ever player.

Gibson, who could have been a contender for that crown himself, was with him when the Irish Rugby Football Union named his hero as their finest player. Gibson said: "He was very embarrassed by it.

"He was humbled by it, but that the nature of the man.

"However, there wouldn't be many people who would dispute the IRFU's assessment of his quality

"Yet, to be honest, I think he derived more satisfaction from the fact that he could go to a place like Zambia and contribute enormously to the medical welfare of the people there"

McBride and Jack Kyle were once joint local presidents of a rugby charity called Wooden Spoon.

Outside the church McBride said of his old friend: "Jack was a great man, a man of integrity who still enjoyed his rugby and who never made any secret of his admiration for newer stars like Brian O'Driscoll."

A world away in Zambia yesterday, Jack Kyle was in the thoughts and prayers of people in his home of 34 years, the mining town of Chingola.

The local newspapers and websites carried heartfelt tributes to Kyle, the rugby man who enriched thousands of lives here, but who as a surgeon saved countless lives over there.

Belfast Telegraph


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