IMMORTALS CLUB SWELLS TO 13 ON SPECIAL NIGHT FOR RUGBY LEAGUE

The NRL added five players to the ranks of the Immortals in a memorable ceremony at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Wednesday.

Only two of the 10-man nominees list were set to be given the prestigious honour, but the evening kicked off with all three pre-war contenders – pioneering superstar Dally Messenger, Glebe’s phenomenal tryscoring forward Frank Burge and ‘The Bradman of League’ Dave Brown – being inducted.

This was the first time pre-war players had been eligible for Immortal status.

After Mark Graham, Cliff Lyons, Steve Menzies, Ricky Stuart, Gorden Tallis and Petero Civoniceva were officially welcomed into the NRL Hall of Fame, with Tallis’ poignant speech arguably the highlight of the night, two more post-war players were hailed as the 12th and 13th Immortals.

To wide public acclaim, St George legend Norm Provan and champion centre Mal Meninga were given what many considered long overdue Immortal recognition.

Provan’s remarkable record – an unmatched 10 grand final wins, including four as captain-coach, during the Dragons run of 11 straight premierships – speaks for itself. The Australian Team of the Century second-rower is one of rugby league’s finest statesmen and one of it truly great forwards.

While I’m loath to take anything away from the beloved ‘Sticks’’ honour, I have to say I agree with Paul Kent’s contention on NRL360 that he should have again been overlooked – for good this time.

When a panel of experts named their top 100 Australian players of all time for Rugby League Week – the magazine that had owned the Immortals concept until recently – in 1992, Provan came in at No.26. A similar Daily Telegraph poll in 2000 had him at No.32.

Provan’s other 12 fellow Immortals were No.18 or higher in both polls. Fellow nominees Ron Coote, Ken Irvine, Brian Bevan and Duncan Hall were chosen ahead of Provan in both polls. But the overwhelming sentiment is he belongs in Immortal company, and well done to a genuine icon of rugby league.

Meninga’s inclusion was less contentious – a three-time premiership-winning captain with Canberra in a far more competitive era, the only player to make four Kangaroo Tours and skipper two, an interstate career spanning 16 seasons. (Side note: he was top-15 in both of the aforementioned Top 100 polls).

In my mind, Immortal status represents true rugby league genius – players who were head and shoulders above the rest for a long period. Meninga was certainly that.

While Coote, Irvine, Bevan, and to a lesser extent Hall, had their supporters, modern great Darren Lockyer was the unluckiest to miss out. He’ll be on the ballot next time and will surely get in.

But the recognition of Messenger, Burge and Brown was the most heart-warming takeaway from a special night for the game. The NRL missed a trick by not inducting four pre-war players – there would have been nice symmetry with the inaugural naming of four post-war Immortals in 1981 (the periods 1908-45 and 1946-81 are very close timespans). Duncan Thompson, Harold Horder, Vic Hey, Wally Prigg, Tom Gorman and Jimmy Craig should be put forward when the next round of Immortals are chosen.

On the whole, though, the NRL nailed it.

 

Dally Messenger (b. 1883 – d. 1959)

Eastern Suburbs (1908-13): 48 games – 21 tries, 157 goals, 2 field goals (381 points).
New South Wales (1908-12): 6 matches – 10 tries, 43 goals (116 points).
Australia (1908-14): 7 Tests – 4 tries, 16 goals (44 points).
New Zealand (1908): 2 Tests – 1 try, 3 goals (9 points).

Herbert Henry ‘Dally’ Messenger was Rugby League’s first superstar, a glorious exponent of every facet of the game, whose status and fame was almost greater than the code itself during its formative seasons. The preeminent rugby union player of his time, Messenger’s defection was one of the most significant precursors to the breakaway rugby league movement’s eventual success. Messenger toured Britain as a guest with the trailblazing New Zealand ‘All Golds’ in 1907-08, and was the undeniable star again on the pioneering 1908-09 Kangaroo Tour, top-scoring with 155 points. He captained Australia in Tests against England on the tour and at home in 1910, but declined the opportunity to tour with the 1911-12 Kangaroos. Messenger captained Eastern Suburbs to a hat-trick of premierships from 1911-13, retiring after the third triumph. A masterful attacking player and a goalkicker extraordinaire, Messenger’s deeds with the boot and with ball in hand are entwined within rugby league folklore. He was named as a reserve in the ARL Team of the Century and on the wing in the NSW Team of the Century in 2008 – 100 years after he spearheaded the fledgling code. Admirers exhausted every possible accolade and metaphor in describing his footballing genius, but Messenger’s most common soubriquet sums him up best – ‘The Master.’

Dave Brown (b. 1913 – d. 1974)

Eastern Suburbs (1930-41): 94 games – 93 tries, 194 goals (667 points).
New South Wales (1931-36): 19 matches – 9 tries, 45 goals (117 points).
Australia (1933-36): 9 Tests – 7 tries, 26 goals (73 points).

‘The Bradman of League’ handle is fair indicator of the astonishing feats of the Easts and Kangaroos centre phenomenon of the 1930s, Dave Brown. An uncontainable attacking force, Brown debuted for Eastern Suburbs at the age of 16 in 1930, and was the overwhelming star of the 1933-34 Kangaroo Tour, setting a record to stand the test of time with 285 points in 32 matches. Brown became Australia’s youngest-ever Test captain against New Zealand (22 years and 177 days) in 1935 and led his country in the Ashes series against the touring Lions in 1936. As captain of the first two premierships of the Easts dynasty that won three straight titles from 1935-37, Brown set a host of almost inconceivable records in the 1935 season – his 45 points in a match and 38 tries in a season have never been remotely challenged, while his 244 points stood as a record season total for 34 years. He joined English club Warrington at the end of 1936 for a luminous four-season stint, but returned to finish his career as captain-coach of the Tricolours, overseeing another premiership in 1940 and retiring a year later. Brown played down his remarkable point-scoring exploits as a by-product of playing in a champion team, but that sentiment was typical of his trademark modesty – the records are a tangible marker of a footballing genius of the highest order. He was a glaring omission from the ARL Team of the Century in 2008, but was chosen as a reserve in the NSW Team of the Century.

Frank Burge (b. 1894 – d. 1958)

Glebe, St. George (1911-27): 154 games – 146 tries, 49 goals (536 points).
New South Wales (1912-26): 6 matches – 7 tries, 5 goals (31 points).
Australia (1914-22): 13 Tests – 7 tries, 7 goals (35 points).

Australia’s greatest try-scoring forward and one of the most destructive ball-runners the game has produced, Frank Burge stands over the history of the extinct Glebe club like a colossus. Burge’s strike-rate of 137 tries in 138 matches for the ‘Dirty Reds’ dwarfs that of even the most prolific modern-day wingers and fullbacks. A first-grade debutant at just 16 in 1911, Burge topped the competition’s try-scoring table three times during the 1910s and scored a premiership record eight tries in a match against University in 1920 (he also added four goals for a then-record 32 points). Big, powerful and blindingly fast, ‘Chunky’ Burge scored 33 tries in just 23 matches on the 1921-22 Kangaroo Tour. He was unable to deliver a premiership for Glebe – runners-up finishes in 1911-12, 1915 and 1922 was the closest the club came to a title – but his influence was underlined during a one-season stint as captain-coach of St. George. The 32-year-old led the previous season’s wooden spooners to their maiden appearance in a premiership final, where they were defeated by South Sydney. A player ahead of his time, Burge’s dedication to training and fitness – combined with the obvious advantage of natural ability – gave him a giant head-start over his rivals. Burge was named as a reserve in the ARL’s Team of the Century and at prop in NSW’s Team of the Century (despite playing predominantly in the backrow) during the 2008 Centenary celebrations, but he was unquestionably the greatest forward Australia produced during the code’s first half-century.

Norm Provan (b. 1932)

St. George (1951-65): 256 games – 63 tries, 1 goal (191 points).
New South Wales (1954-61): 20 matches – 4 tries (12 points).
Australia (1954-60): 18 Tests – 8 tries (24 points).

Norm Provan’s phenomenal Grand Final record alone is an obvious sign of the towering second-rower’s influence. ‘Sticks’ featured in 10 consecutive premiership victories for the mighty St. George side, beginning with the 1956 Grand Final that started the club’s world record run and culminating in a triumphant exit from the game after the pulsating 1965 decider against Souths played in front of a record SCG crowd. Provan captain-coached the Dragons from 1962-65, prolonging the legacy of revered club leader Ken Kearney. An imposing physical presence, Provan’s powerful ball-running and tough defence were his on-field trademarks. His Test career began in the 1954 Ashes triumph on home soil, before touring with the 1956-57 Kangaroos, featuring in the World Cup-winning campagin in 1957 and grappling with the British forwards again in 1958. Provan’s selection as a second-rower in the ARL Team of the Century in 2008 secured his rightful place as one of Australia’s greatest forwards.

Mal Meninga (b. 1960)

Canberra (1986-94): 166 games – 74 tries, 283 goals, 2 field goals (864 points).
Queensland (1979-94)*: 38 matches – 9 tries, 78 goals (188 points).
Australia (1982-94): 46 Tests – 21 tries, 99 goals (278 points).

ARL Team of the Century centre Mal Meninga’s list of achievements is almost as colossal as his giant frame that terrorised defenders throughout a 17-year top-level career. A teenage sensation with Brisbane Souths in the late-1970s, Meninga won BRL Grand Finals in 1981 and 1985 before joining Canberra and captaining the club to premiership success in 1989-90 and 1994. He is the only player to make four Kangaroo Tours and captain two squads to Great Britain and France, while his Test appearances and points totals were record marks at the time of his retirement. Meninga is the highest point-scorer in Origin history, with 161 in a then-record 32 appearances for Queensland. A large part of his legendary legacy stems from his comeback from four broken arm injuries that derailed his 1987-88 seasons, winning the Golden Boot and leading the Raiders to their historic maiden grand final triumph in 1989. A destructive runner with express pace in the first half of his career, Meninga developed into a skilful, first-rate ball distributor as he progressed. He tormented Great Britain in five Ashes series, but never more importantly than in his towering displays as captain in the unforgettable 1990 series in the Old Dart and the hard-fought 1992 campaign at home. Meninga was named at centre in the Teams of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the Australian and Queensland Teams of the Century. His contribution to the Raiders was recognised by his selection as Canberra’s greatest clubman by the Men of League in 2008.

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