An era ended when rugby league legend Harry Jepson OBE left Headingley Stadium for the final time yesterday.
Around 1,000 past and present players and coaches, administrators and fans provided a standing ovation when the hearse bearing Jepson’s coffin left for the crematorium following a two-hour celebration of his “wonderful life”.
Jepson, who was 96 when he died last month, was the last link to rugby league’s past. He was born 25 years after the sport was founded and knew some of those involved in the breakaway from the Rugby Football Union on August 29, 1895,
Friends from across the game gathered to share memories of the man who was known as Mr Rugby League, despite never playing the sport at a senior level.
Born in Hunslet, Jepson had a long association with his local club before joining Leeds in 1970.
He rose to become football chairman and later president of the club and was also a founder member of the Rugby Football League’s board of directors.
The sport’s leading historian, Professor Tony Collins, recounted how Jepson had been among hundreds of schoolboys who travelled to Wembley to see Hunslet beat Widnes in the 1934 Challenge Cup final.
The following day he and thousands of others gathered in Wellington Street to welcome the team home when they arrived at Leeds Central Station.
The young Jepson then walked with the players back to Hunslet, as they called in at every pub en-route to show off the trophy.
“Harry was the last of a remarkable generation of Hunslet-born men,” Collins said.
“He played rugby in the same streets as the Oscar-nominated actor Peter O’Toole and the writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse.
“He was a giant of a man, he had a heart as big and as warm as the sun that shines over us. When people ask why we call it the greatest game of all, we will tell them about Harry Jepson.”
Hunslet greats Ken Eyre and Ray Abbey spoke of Jepson’s time at Parkside, the club’s former home and his one-time pupils Garry Schofield and Lady Anne Walker talked about his years as a school teacher in Leeds.
Other tributes were paid by his friends Phil Caplan and Ronnie Teeman, ex-Leeds players Alan Smith and Tony Currie, former RFL administrators Maurice Lindsay and Robert Elston, ex-Leeds chief executive Alf Davies, RFL chief executive Nigel Wood and Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan, from Leeds’ current squad, read a passage from the Bible and former captain Kevin Sinfield read Jepson’s favourite poem If, by Rudyard Kipling.
Lizzie Jones sang Jerusalem and Abide with Me.
Closing the service, Rhinos’ chaplain Rev Steve Mitchell said: “It seems that in Harry’s death, part of rugby league itself has died. He was part of its very history.”
Rhinos coach Brian McDermott and Wigan Warriors boss Shaun Wane were pallbearers, alongside past players Jamie Peacock, Roy Dickinson, Lee Crooks and Bill Ramsey.