'The paragon of pace and guile, that damned elusive Jackie Kyle'
February 19, 2014
Jackie Kyle before his debut in 1947 © PA Photos
"They seek him here, they seek him there
Grand Slams are a rare breed; even more uncommon are the players who define a generation.
When Ireland run out at Twickenham on Saturday, there will be an 88-year-old man sitting in a comfy seat in front of a television at Leinster's RDS watching avidly. He will be struck by a pang of nostalgia and an element of pride as the television cameras inevitably focus on the face of Brian O'Driscoll during the anthems as the he becomes the world's joint most-capped player. It is also inevitable that whoever commentates on the match will prefix O'Driscoll with an array of adjectives whether it is great, masterful or timeless.
John Wilson 'Jackie' Kyle knows what it's like to have such words intrinsically tagged on to his name. In 2002 he was named Ireland's 'Greatest Ever Rugby Player' but the honour still sits uneasy on his humble shoulders. Of course he is pleased to have such a place in Ireland's rugby pantheon, but it was something he never sought.
"The whole idea of being described as the greatest player is partly down to the team they are in and when they were playing," Kyle told ESPN. "If you were asked that now, people would say O'Driscoll or Sexton. I think you're talking about a certain era really. I don't think the forwards were considered as much as the three-quarters.
"But in one way it is very pleasing but it also recognised that it was taking in players from recent years. I doubt it took in the players from the 20s and 30s and before."
Kyle neatly sidestepped talk of the honour in a style reminiscent of his days on the field at fly-half for Ireland in a career that spanned from 1947 through to 1958.
Just one year into his time with Ireland, Kyle penned his name in Irish history as he was part of the 1948 team that achieved Ireland's first Grand Slam. It was a feat that proved to be more of an albatross than a driving force for Ireland's various sides over the following decades as each tried and failed to live up to the standards set in 1948. That was until the 2009 crop finally ended the long wait as they emulated the famous side.
"That was our big year," Kyle said. "I think we played France on New Year's Day in Paris and then we had the other games. We then played England at Twickenham and that was a narrow win at 11 points to 10. We beat Scotland and then played Wales at Ravenhill and we won 6-3.
"I had no idea how big a deal it was. We knew it was a feat but we didn't realise how long it would be before it was repeated by another Irish side."
There was a touching moment following the 2009 triumph when Kyle was pictured talking to O'Driscoll - two men with the same achievement to their name, but from different worlds.
"It's nice to have all those memories of bygone years when we travelled to Wales, Twickenham, Murrayfield and so on. It was quite an experience for us. We never got together as a side except on the Friday before a game. We never trained. But on a Friday we met, had some lunch and then had a run around for half an hour or so. You'd meet your scrum-half and you'd run up and down the field with the three-quarters. The pack would practice some lineouts and scrimmaging - maybe with an opposition pack - and then by Saturday afternoon we'd be on the field.
"Afterwards, we'd have a dinner as a team and return home on a Sunday. We'd all listen to Radio Athlone on a Sunday evening to find out if you were on the next team or not. By Tuesday or Wednesday you'd get a note saying you'd been chosen to play. There was always a sentence which said something along the lines of 'your jersey will be provided just before the game but it must be returned immediately after the game, otherwise there will be a charge of 30 shillings made.' There were no real bonuses."
It was a far cry from the environment Joe Schmidt's men enjoy today and also the school of rugby they played.
"Had he [O'Driscoll] been playing in our time, he would have had more opportunity to run. They do well to get through the tackles as the defences are so well organised as in bygone years you'd use to pick your opposite number and if you got passed him, you'd be away. But now if you beat your man then there's another forward waiting to tackle you. Those gaps we found in earlier years would be much harder to find these days."
Keeping England on their toes in 1957 © PA Photos
Attempting to compare one player from the present to one from rugby's past heroes is always near-impossible and a purely subjective task. It will inevitably occur when O'Driscoll hangs up his boots as pundits and supporters alike attempt to place him in the rungs of Irish history. Any attempt should be contextualised - rugby has morphed from one type of game to another. But the role of the individual remains the same.
While O'Driscoll has perplexed defences with his gainline breaking brilliance over the years, the opposition also had the same issue trying to contain Kyle as a report from the Times on Ireland's 3-0 win over England from 1951 illustrated.
"Nor was there any back on the English side compared with Kyle ... he was an outstanding figure. His swift covering alone was a decisive factor, for it robbed England of one otherwise certain try. Kyle, like Cleaver of Wales, is one of those players who apparently watch the game closely, no matter how far away the ball may seem at the moment, and therefore offer themselves the chance to join in effectively in the most unexpected manner."
Kyle's response to such a gushing report on the match? Typically humble.
"It's nice to have those tags put on you. I suppose that one of the dangers of having those tags is that the opposition would say 'don't let that man get away, make sure you get hold of him'. It's something that when you have that label to your name, the opposition are going to make sure you can't do anything."
For Kyle, watching O'Driscoll has brought him nothing but pleasure. It will be the individuals people talk about in 50 years time before team achievements are mentioned. "Brian has given tremendous service to Ireland. It's amazing the difference one man can make to a team.
"Brian has often been that one man for Ireland and has given the team confidence. He's always a danger man and the opposition knows they can't let him get away. If he hadn't been there, I'm not sure we would have achieved some of those results in the years gone by."
It somehow seems fitting that Kyle will watch O'Driscoll become the world's joint most-capped player on Saturday from one of the lounges at the home of Leinster's favourite son - two players who have been generation-defining individuals but seem reluctant heroes. Kyle will sit there dodging every defender with the current talisman.
"I don't go to the games now but I do watch them. I will go down to Leinster's ground where I have some lunch and watch the game. I am always comfortably looked after there. They give me a nice meal and a comfy chair in front of the television set to watch the game.
"My son lives in Celbridge outside Dublin so he can come along and get his car parked there. I must say, they are very pleasant people. There's a lovely atmosphere there."
The romantic in you hopes O'Driscoll will be sat in Kyle's seat at the RDS in 53 years time, cheering on the Ireland team as they journey to Twickenham attempting to continue a charge for the Grand Slam.
Lifted from the field after his 45th cap in 1958 © PA Photos
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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