The 7 Rugby League Immortals were all named in the Team of the Century as fallen hero Andrew Johns won the contentious half-back position and Mal Meninga claimed a shock inclusion in the centres.
Meninga and St George Immortal Reg Gasnier relegated fellow Dragons Immortal Graeme Langlands to the interchange bench as the best 17 players of the game’s first 100 years were named at a Gala ball in Sydney on Thursday night.
Big Queenslander Meninga, a pioneer of State of Origin and the current Maroons coach, was the big surprise selection from the secret ballot held last December by a panel of 28 former players, coaches, officials and historians.
The team includes the very first superstar – Herbert ‘Dally Messenger’ (interchange) – to the recently retired great Johns – and is coached by legendary master Jack Gibson.
“I must confess I’m bewildered by it all,” Meninga said.
“Having a look at the array of centres who have played the game for 100 years and to be recognised like this, I feel great.
“I’m stoked, it’s an honour and a privilege. It doesn’t get much better than this.”
Langlands wasn’t the only member of the ‘seven greats’ pushed to the interchange.
Manly five-eighth Bob Fulton was overlooked for a starting role for Queensland ‘King’ Wally Lewis in the battle between two Immortals.
It was always inevitable that one of league’s seven luminaries would not make the starting side, however the other greats Clive Churchill (full-back), John Raper (lock) and Arthur Beetson (prop) all won starting honours.
Beetson was the only chosen player not represented at Royal Hall of Industries where 95 of the game’s top 100 players of all-time were represented.
Johns was the game’s most recent player picked in the side.
His selection at half-back came despite his shock arrest for drug possession in London late last year and his subsequent confession of substance abuse during his stellar career which many thought could cost him his place among the most elite team in league history.
“I feel like tonight the game has forgiven me,” Johns said.
“I was nervous, it’s a very big occasion in the game and also I have some other issues from last year.”
The recently retired Knight and game’s greatest pointscorer, who quit the NRL in April 2007 with a career-threatening neck injury, beat fellow half-back champions Allan Langer and Peter Sterling for the key playmaker’s role.
“It’s probably the most humbling moment of my life,” Johns added.
“Rugby league is everything in my life so this is such an emotional moment.”
Tryscoring machines Ken Irvine and Brian Bevan claimed the two positions on the wings.
North Sydney (1958-70) and Manly (1971-73) flyer Irvine remains the highest tryscorer in Australian league history with 212 tries in 236 games and 33 tries in 31 Tests.
Bevan, the only member of this illustrious team never to play for Australia, played just seven games for Eastern Suburbs before he forged his career in England with Warrington and Blackpool from 1945-64 and holds the world record for 796 career tries.
South Sydney’s Ron Coote (1964-71) and St George’s Norm Provan (1951-65) form the imposing back-row combination after leading their clubs through two of the most dominant periods in premiership history.
Coote played in nine grand finals in 11 seasons with Souths and then Easts (winning six times) while Provan led the red and white era playing in 10 of 11 grand final victories, the last four as captain-coach.
Roosters premiership captain Beetson (1974-75) was joined in the front row by fellow Queenslander Duncan Hall.
Hall, who played his entire career in the Brisbane competition, played 22 Tests for Australia (1948-55) and is regarded as one of Australia’s greatest post-war props.
Western Suburbs rake Noel Kelly won the position of hooker, ahead of Canberra’s Steve Walters.
Kelly played 25 Tests for Australia (1959-68) during the game’s roughest period and is still believed to retain the record for the most send offs in the game today.
Joining Messenger, Fulton and Langlands on the interchange bench was one of the game’s early pioneers Frank Burge, who was labelled the “greatest forward Australia has produced” long after he retired.
Team of the Century
- Full-back: Clive Churchill
Wingers: Ken Irvine, Brian Bevan
Centres: Reg Gasnier, Mal Meninga
Five-eighth: Wally Lewis
Half-back: Andrew Johns
Lock: John Raper
Second row: Ron Coote, Norm Provan
Front row: Duncan Hall, Arthur Beetson
Hooker: Noel Kelly
Reserves: Dally Messenger, Bob Fulton, Graeme Langlands, Frank Burge
Coach: Jack Gibson