Joe Egan: The last surviving member of rugby league’s ‘Indomitables’

 

The death of Joe Egan at the age of 93 has severed the last surviving link with the most famous of all rugby league tours. In 1946, with the world still in the early stages of recovering from the War, the game's authorities on both sides of the globe were eager for a British Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand to take place as part of a return to normality.

The problem was a lack of transport to get them there. The only ship available was the aircraft carrier, HMS Indomitable, so the 1946 Lions embarked on that. The ship's name was later adopted as a badge of their determination to get to the southern hemisphere and play and win there. The party became known as "The Indomitables" and Egan was the last of their number.

On board ship, the players volunteered to stoke the boilers as a way of keeping fit during the long voyage. They had to disembark at Fremantle, because Indomitable was needed to collect freed prisoners of war from Changi Prison in Singapore. That left the Great Britain party to negotiate an arduous five-day journey across Australia on a train with no sleeping accommodation. When the train stopped in the desert the players would get a ball out and loosen up with some training alongside the tracks.

Despite the rigours of their journey, they became the first team, and so far the only one, to come through a three-Test series in Australia unbeaten. Egan, the Wigan hooker, was a key man in his Test debut, an 8-8 draw in Sydney, marshalling the side and dominating possession after the sending-off of Jack Kitching had left them a man short. The tourists then won 14-5 in Brisbane, before going back to Sydney for a 20-7 victory that sealed the series. Egan went on to play 14 times for Great Britain, 21 times for England and 10 times for Lancashire.

It was a career that began when he signed for Wigan as a teenager, from the famous amateur club, Wigan St Patricks. His progress was interrupted by the Second World War, in which as a brass moulder he was in a reserved occupation.

In the years after that he was at the height of his powers, as a player who largely reinvented the role of hooker. For Egan, it was not just a matter of shovelling the ball out of the scrum, highly adept though he was at that aspect of the job. Where he truly stood out was as a distributor of the ball, particularly skilled at selling dummies to the opposition and putting his fellow forwards through gaps he created.

In 1948, he became the first captain to receive the Challenge Cup from a reigning monarch, when George VI presented it after the 8-3 victory over Bradford Northern at Wembley. He described that as the proudest moment of his career. Two years later and after 362 appearances for his home-town club, Egan became the most expensive player in the game when he was transferred to Leigh for a record fee of £5,000, the only time a hooker has held that distinction. He was player-coach there until he retired from playing in 1956, later coaching both Wigan and Widnes to Wembley finals.

He wrote authoritatively about the game for the Daily Express and the Wigan Post and Chronicle and until recent years was a familiar face at Lions' reunions. One of his three sons, Joe Jnr, also played as a professional.

Joseph Egan, rugby league footballer and coach: born Wigan 26 March 1919; married Bessie (deceased; three sons, one daughter); died Wigan 11 November 2012.

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