Vince Karalius: Ferocious rugby league player for St Helens, Widnes and Great Britain

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Vince Karalius was one of Great Britain's best-ever rugby league forwards, a man whose name, almost half a century after his heyday, remains a byword for ferocious commitment and extreme fitness. For St Helens and for Widnes, but most of all for his country in Test matches against Australia, Karalius was the fiercest competitor imaginable. It was an approach that earned him the nickname "the Wild Bull of the Pampas" (after the Argentine heavyweight boxer Luis Angel Firpo) from the admiring Australians, in whose country he is still revered.

In an era when the national selectors had somehow to fit two other magnificent loose forwards – Johnny Whiteley and Derek "Rocky" Turner – into the Great Britain pack, Karalius won 12 caps, playing in the Ashes triumph in Australia in 1958 and the World Cup victory at home two years later. In the 1958 series he was one of the heroes of an unlikely win in Brisbane, with nine fit players, that has gone down as one of the game's epics. Karalius, playing his first Test, moved to stand-off for the second half despite suffering from a back injury that was to hospitalise him after the match.

"What he did that day was unbelievable," said his old team-mate for club and country the scrum-half Alex Murphy. "He wasn't going there just to tackle. The first thing he said was, 'Let's put a move on.' That was the sort of confidence he had." Great Britain won 25-18 to level the series and Karalius recovered sufficiently to play in the decider in Sydney, where he took a leading role in a 40-17 victory.

That series was the defining episode in a career that began when the Widnes junior club West Bank persuaded him to give the game a try. Born in the town in 1932, to a family with a mixture of Lithuanian, Irish and Scottish roots, Karalius was initially more interested in football and showed promise as a goalkeeper. Other youthful exploits included diving into the Manchester Ship Canal from the railway bridge that connected Widnes with Runcorn.

Karalius showed an immediate affinity for rugby league and he signed for St Helens in 1950, making his first-team début two years later. His fitness was his outstanding asset and he was renowned for running to training from his home in Widnes, 14 miles away – and running back after the session. In 1954 he was in the side that won the Lancashire Cup, beating Wigan in the final, and in 1956 he was part of the Saints side that won the Challenge Cup for the first time, overcoming Halifax 13-2 at Wembley, with Karalius setting up the first try. That was indicative of his all-round value as a loose forward. Although famed as a superb defender who tackled well above his modest weight of around 14st, he was also constructive with the ball, aided by what opponents called "hands like shovels".

It was perhaps surprising that it took the Great Britain selectors until 1958 to realise that he had to be in the Test side, but he made up for lost time on that tour as a key player and as the on-field "minder" for the precocious Murphy. "He looked after me like a second father," Murphy said. "Nobody took any liberties when Vinty was around. It was like having one of the Kray twins as your best mate, he was that hard."

In 1960, Karalius played in all three World Cup victories, over New Zealand, France and Australia. Although regarded as a hard, rather than a dirty player, he was sent off against the French, but managed to escape suspension.

The following year he led Saints to victory at Wembley again, beating Wigan 12-6, but in 1962 he left the club after 252 appearances, joining his hometown team. He played 132 games for Widnes, including beating Hull Kingston Rovers 13-5 in the Challenge Cup final in 1964. He retired in 1966.

As a coach, Karalius was highly influential and arguably well ahead of his time. He had two spells in charge of Widnes (1972-75, 1983-84), both of which culminated in a Challenge Cup final triumph, separated by three years (1976-79) at Wigan. He was an early advocate of the methodical use of weight training and helped many young players to make the most of their careers.

Alongside his rugby career, Karalius ran a successful scrap-metal business, which he sold in the 1980s before retiring to the Isle of Man – effectively becoming a tax exile. Although he was out of the game's mainstream, his name and unmistakable craggy profile remained famous on both sides of the world. "He was respected wherever he went, but he was a very gentle person," said Murphy. "People couldn't believe that a man with such a lovely, quiet manner – who might be persuaded to go on stage and sing a gentle, romantic song – was the same person who had just been terrorising everyone on the field."

Karalius was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2000. He is one of only 17 players to be recognised in that way.

Dave Hadfield

Vincent Peter Patrick Karalius, rugby league player and coach: born Widnes, Lancashire 15 October 1932; married 1959 Barbara Pilkington (two daughters, and one son deceased); died Port Erin, Isle of Man 13 December 2008.