Joe Egan: Last of rugby league's Indomitables

Great Britain rugby league tourists 1946
Image caption The 1946 team featured Joe Egan of Wigan (second from right in second row) and Trevor Foster of Bradford Northern (first left in third row)

The story of a unique sporting odyssey has now "almost disappeared from living memory" according to Professor Tony Collins, director of the International Centre for Sports History & Culture at De Montfort University.

Former Great Britain international rugby league player Joe Egan died at the age of 93 in November, closing the book on the story of the remarkable Indomitables' post-war tour to Australia and New Zealand.

Before his death he was the last survivor of the team nick-named after the Royal Navy warship that carried them across the world in 1946.

Due to transport shortages in the immediate aftermath of World War II the party made the 10,000 mile (16,000 km) journey to Sydney on the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable.

The team landed at Freemantle in Western Australia - still more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from their destination.

Record-breaking team

It took a train five days to cross one of the most inhospitable deserts in the continent to reach Sydney.

The tourists left Plymouth on 3 April and finally arrived in Sydney on 13 May.

Image caption The team travelled to Australia on an aircraft carrier called HMS Indomitable

When they got back to England in September they had been away for six months and returned as the most successful rugby league touring team to Australia - a record that still stands.

Originally it had been thought too difficult to get the team to the other side of the world.

However, Australian statesman Dr H V Evatt stopped off in England, on the way to the conference that founded the United Nations, to persuade the authorities of the benefit of the tour.

'Great adventure'

HMS Indomitable reached Australia via the Suez Canal and Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said in Egypt, Aden (now in Yemen) and Colombo (now in Sri Lanka).

Trevor Foster of Bradford Northern, who died in 2005, was one of the players on board and according to his son, Simon, he "talked at length about his great adventure".

He had been a physical training instructor in the army during the war and helped out with the team's fitness as the large deck was used for sprints, touch rugby and deck hockey.

Mr Foster said: "The ship was anchored off Port Said and my dad organised a game of touch in the early evening when the heat was going down.

Image caption The train had no sleeping compartments and it was said that some slept in the luggage racks

"During the game the rugby ball went over the side and fell into the water. The team only had two or three leather balls as equipment was sparse.

"My dad recalled how winger, Eric Batten, dived over the side retrieved the ball and clambered back up a ladder, only to be told off by the captain as the water was shark-infested."

On the aircraft carrier were several journalists including Eddie Waring who was later to become the voice of rugby league on the BBC for many years.

Waring wrote a book about the team's exploits on the tour and, according to Mr Foster, he also organised the squad's Welsh players into a choir.

When it sang Waring would organise a collection among the audience and the money would be used by the players to buy food to supplement their rations.

'Unique comradeship'

On the train journey across Australia there were no sleeping facilities and little food was available.

Mr Foster said: "The smaller players slept on the luggage rack but my dad couldn't fit up there. The forwards had to find room to sleep on the floor of the train.

"After a month on the high seas and the deprivation of the trip a spirit gelled that brought a unique comradeship to the team."

They later went on to remain unbeaten in all three test matches against Australia and win the Ashes with two wins and a draw.

The families of the tourists back in the UK received food parcels sent by the Australian rugby league authorities to ease the strain of the rationing still in force.

A £1 food parcel including butter, cheese, lard and dripping was sent monthly to every family during the team's stay in the country.

When the team visited small towns in the Australian countryside there was often a day's holiday declared and the whole population would attend the match, according to Mr Collins. In all there was an attendance of about one million spectators during the tour, he said.

"Hopefully there'll be another British rugby league tour to Australia that could win the series - anything is possible in sport - but the story of the team's transport will never be repeated," Professor Collins said.

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