RUGBY LEAGUE is poorer for the passing of Leeds Rhinos president Harry Jepson OBE.
Harry, who was 96 when he died on Monday – rugby league’s 121st birthday – was a link to a different era.
First introduced to the sport as a follower of his local team, Hunslet, Jepson knew people who had been in at the start, when the code was formed in August, 1895.
He served Hunslet as assistant-secretary and then secretary before moving to Leeds in the 1969/70 season, initially as right-hand man to chairman Jack Myerscough.
Harry was saddened by the decline of Hunslet following their Wembley appearance in 1965 and the demise of the famous Parkside ground – though he was partly responsible for its lasting legacy, a row of poplar trees which were planted at the ground in 1948 and are still visible from the M1 motorway.
First taking responsibility for Leeds’ ‘A’ team, he was involved in setting up the Colts competition in the 1970s and managed the Great Britain youth squad which toured the southern hemisphere in 1982.
He was Leeds’ representative on the rugby league council and a founder member of the Rugby Football League (RFL) board of directors. Becoming football director in the mid-1980s, it was Jepson who attracted some of Australia’s star names to Leeds, including all-time great winger Eric Grothe and future Test ace Andrew Ettingshausen. Jepson chaired the meeting which discussed the advent of Super League and was involved in founding the Paris St Germain club in 1996. Though brought up a Hunslet fan, he became Leeds’ greatest supporter and nobody was more delighted when Rhinos won the treble last year.
He lived and breathed the game, but there was more to Jepson than rugby league. He served in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and then the Royal Army Service Corps during the Second World War and saw active duty in north Africa and southern Italy.
Back in civilian life he was a hugely respected teacher at Bewley Street, Cottingley, Rodley and finally Clapgate schools, where he was deputy-head.
In that role he helped thousands of youngsters – among them Leeds and Great Britain legend Garry Schofield and his team-mate David Creasser – make a positive start in life.
Warm and approachable, always having an opinion, but with a keen sense of humour, Jepson was not one of the ‘it was better in my day’ brigade.
Despite having seen the game change almost out of recognition since his early days on the terraces at Parkside, Jepson loved rugby league of whatever era and had no hesitation in describing – during a speech in the long bar at Headingley a couple of hours afterwards – last year’s Grand Final win as the greatest day in the Leeds club’s history.
Having seen every Leeds team over nine decades, he was happy to recognise the group which won seven championships from 2004-2015 as the best-ever.
Remaining fiercely independent, Jepson kept in touch with rugby league friends worldwide – particularly in France and Australia – and supported the Leeds club until the very end. His final game at Headingley was Rhinos’ win over Hull KR in the Qualifiers on August 12, less than three weeks before his death.
He had been hoping to travel to London for the following weekend’s game, but decided not to make the long journey.
Until recently he regularly attended Challenge Cup finals, where he was treated like rugby league royalty.
He was hugely proud to take part in a degree ceremony at Leeds Beckett University last month, when he received an honorary doctorate in education.
Though he certainly had a good innings – and remained in reasonable health for his age – Jepson’s death will leave a hole at Headingley and wherever rugby league is played.
Tomorrow night’s game against Salford will be an emotional occasion for his many friends, on the terraces, in the team and the boardroom.
There will never again be anyone like Harry Jepson and he will be very sadly missed. Rest in peace.