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Opinion

How would the 13 Immortals fare in the modern game, and what positions would they play?

Roar Guru
27th April, 2023
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Roar Guru
27th April, 2023
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Comparing players from different eras is always a difficult task, not only because of the way the game has changed across the last 115 years, but also because of the significant advances in sports science and the ever-increasing athleticism of players, particularly in the era of fulltime professionalism.

The perennial question is whether great players from the past would be just as effective in the modern game, would their skill sets still be relevant, or would they struggle physically to be competitive.

Let’s try to answer that by looking at the 13 rugby league Immortals, the greatest players of all time, and consider whether they’d stack up in today’s game.

Arthur Beetson

Beetson was able to combine deft ball-playing skills, a strong running game and brutal defence across his long career. He was also one of the toughest players to play the game, and opposition forwards who set out to target him usually regretted it.

Playing at 188cm tall and 110kgs, he was one of the biggest forwards of his era and would be the ideal size to compete in the modern game. He was very mobile for a big man, but was probably the first to admit that playing 80 minutes was often a stretch, so the modern interchange rules would suit him perfectly.

Verdict: Arthur Beetson would be an absolute sensation in the modern game, best suited to the role of a ball-laying lock forward, who would be both difficult to contain as a ball runner and a great attacking pivot for his team. He would also be an inspirational leader.

Arthur Beetson

Big Artie (Photo by Craig Golding/Getty Images)

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Dave Brown

Some of Brown’s feats are astounding. He played first grade for Eastern Suburbs at just 17 years of age in 1930, captained the club at 18, was in the NSW side the following year, was made NSW captain at 19 and then became Australia’s youngest ever Test captain at age 22, but it was his try scoring prowess that really set him apart.

He was a point scoring machine, crossing for 93 tries from 94 games for Eastern Suburbs, including 38 from just 15 games in 1935, including two six-try hauls, one 5-try haul and four quadruples. He could also kick goals and finished with nearly 1,200 points in his career.

Powerfully built, and described as an outstanding centre, ball player, defender and kicker, Brown also possessed the uncanny ability to read the play ahead of others.

Verdict: Brown had all the attributes to be a prolific point-scoring centre or winger in today’s game and would no doubt land even more goals with the modern all-weather ball from the kicking tee.

Frank Burge

Burge’s career spanned the period 1911 to 1927, an era when forwards were just supposed to do the hard graft while the wingers scored the tries, but someone forgot to tell Frank, as he crossed for over 200 tries in his career.

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Burge started early, he played first grade rugby union at age 14, first grade league for Glebe at 16, went within a whisker of being taken on the 1911-12 Kangaroo Tour at age 17, was selected for NSW at 18, and had just turned 20 when he eventually made his debut for Australia.

His try-scoring feats were legendary, once even crossing for eight tries in a game against Sydney University, and he was the game’s top try scorer in each of the 2015, 2016 and 2018 seasons.

Primarily a lock forward playing at around 183cm and 90 kgs, Burge was described as being extremely fit, had a very high work rate, and possessed a relentless quality that saw him continually backing up breaks made by his teammates, often resulting in tries.

Verdict: Burge’s never-off-the-ball, high involvement style of play would ensure his success as either a lock forward or on an edge in today’s game, and his ability to always back up the break would see his name regularly in the list of try scorers.

Clive Churchill

Arguably the greatest player of all time, Churchill was part of South Sydney’s golden era of the early 1950s. Although diminutive by today’s standards at just 168 cm tall and 76 kgs dripping wet, Churchill was the complete package, and revolutionised the role of fullback from that of pure defence to one of outright attack.

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He was quick, had great attacking flair, could tackle with the best of them, was generally two plays ahead of the game. and was an inspirational leader and on-field organiser.

Even the great Dally Messenger once opined that “Churchill is the Greatest”. Churchill played 371 first class games in his career, including 27 games for NSW and 37 tests for Australia, captaining the Kangaroos 25 times, and won 4 premierships with South Sydney.

Verdict: Despite his small stature, Churchill’s attacking flair and fearless defence would surely convert to today’s game, and he’d be the marquee fullback that every other team would covet.

Bob Fulton

Fulton was a brilliant and tough competitor who could turn a game in an instant with his scintillating acceleration and footwork.

Playing more often as a centre than as a five-eighth, Fulton achieved everything there was in the game, winning three premierships with Manly, playing 16 games for NSW and 35 tests for Australia, and captained the Kangaroos on seven occasions.

He topped the competition’s try scoring list three times, won the Clive Churchill medal in 1973, and was a deadly field goal exponent. Anytime Fulton had the ball, the opposition defence was in danger, and he could tackle with the best of them.

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Verdict: Fulton would be better suited to 5/8 than centre in today’s game and would create havoc with the opposition defence, either running the ball himself or providing opportunities for his teammates.

Reg Gasnier

Gasnier in full flight was a sight to behold. A beautifully balanced runner with both startling acceleration and outright pace, he also had a swerve that left opposition defenders grasping thin air. He was was known as “The Prince of Centres”, for good reason, and although a prolific try scorer in his own right, crossing for 127 tries in his 125 games for St George, he was equally renowned for putting his outside men into the clear.

Although not big by today’s standards for an outside back at 180 cm tall and weighing just over 80 kgs, he was very athletic and a strong defender. He won six premierships with St George, played 16 games for NSW and 39 tests for Australia, eight of them as captain.

Verdict: Reg Gasnier would be a sensation at fullback in the modern game, where his acceleration, speed and the ability to make space for his outside men would benefit from the extra room provided in the number 1 jersey.

Andrew Johns

Johns is the only immortal to play in the NRL era, so getting a line on his suitability to the modern game is a relatively easy task.

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A three-time Dally M Medal winner, Johns was the best half in the game during his career, and his passing and kicking skills, together with his strong defence and ability take the line on himself, set the benchmark by which all other half backs have been judged since.

He was also a gun goal kicker and field goal specialist, finishing with over 2,500 points in his career.

Verdict: Johns would be a sensation in today’s game, and given the dollars being paid to the likes of Luke Brooks, Daly Cherry-Evans, Mitchell Moses and Ben Hunt, then surely he’d be the first NRL player earning $2m per year.

SYDNEY, NSW - JUNE 15: Andrew Johns of the Blues celebrates a try with team mates during the State Of Origin Game 2 between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons held at Telstra Stadium June 15, 2005 in Sydney, Australia (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Andrew Johns celebrates a try with teammates during Origin II in 2005. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Graeme Langlands

Langlands was a freakish player, capable of some exceptional deeds, whether playing at centre or in his preferred role of fullback.

He had speed, that prodigious sidestep, was a prolific goal kicker, a strong defender and as tough a player as they come, despite playing at around 80 kgs. Langlands won four premierships with St George, played 37 games for NSW, and 44 tests for Australia, and captained the Kangaroos on 15 occasions.

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Verdict: Langlands’ peerless positional play, broken field running and the ability to set his outside men in motion would ensure his success at fullback in the modern game. His ability to read the game from the back, his strong defence and his inspirational leadership would also set him apart.

Wally Lewis

Lewis will best be remembered for his feats for both QLD and Australia, rather than his limited time at the end of his career in the NRL.

He “owned” State of Origin football, and after announcing himself as a young lock forward in the inaugural Origin game in 1980, went on to make 30 appearances for QLD as five-eighth and captain between 1981 and 1991, winning eight man-of-the match awards.

Wally Lewis brings the ball up for Queensland.

Wally Lewis (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

He also played 34 Tests for Australia, with 24 of those as captain. Lewis was tough, fearless and passionate, with a magnificent kicking game, a brilliant pass and always seemed to have time in everything he did.

Verdict: Lewis would handle today’s game with ease, and while he had the size and toughness to play lock, playing wider at five-eighth would get the best out of his passing game and vision.

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Mal Meninga

Meninga’s endless list of records and achievements stands as a testament to the strength and perseverance he displayed over a magnificent 17-year career in top level football.

He is the only player to tour four times with the Kangaroos, the only player to make two Kangaroo tours as captain, he won three premierships with Canberra, played 32 Origins for QLD, 46 Tests for Australia and captained his country 24 times.

He was also a prolific point scorer, notching up over 430 points in representative matches alone. Playing at 187 cm and nearly 110 kgs, Meninga was huge for a centre in any era of the game, but he had the speed and athleticism to go with it.

He was a devastating ball runner, a punishing defender, and could just as easily put his winger over for a try as take the line on himself.

Verdict: The modern game just loves a big, powerful edge runner who can also set up his supporting players, and Meninga would be a sensation, whether playing centre or second row.

Big Mal Meninga with the Green Machine

Mal Meninga (Photo by Getty Images)

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Dally Messenger

Messenger, known in his day as ”The Master”, was the game’s first true champion and he played a large part in securing the future of the fledgling code when he joined rugby league in August 1907.

He had a stocky build, and while standing only about 172 cm and weighing in at just under 80 kgs, he was a powerful runner of the ball and a solid defender.

According to his peers, the centre’s greatest attributes were his unpredictability and astonishing physical co-ordination, coupled with a freakish ability to kick goals from almost any part of the ground. In 1926, Tom McMahon, the game’s first great referee said of Messenger ”There was nothing in the game that he could not do well. Catch, field, side-step, swerve, tackle and kick goals from beyond the halfway mark.”

In a rare career that could only have happened in the early 1900s, Messenger played union for NSW and Australia, before going on to represent NSW, QLD, NZ and Australia in rugby league.

Verdict: Messenger might just be a shade too small for the rigours of a modern-day centre, but he’d no doubt make a great fullback or 5/8 who’d cause the opposition grief every time he touched the ball.

Norm Provan

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There was nothing flashy about Norm Provan, just a hard and relentless forward who was a born leader who led his team into battle time after time. He spent 15 years with St George, winning 10 consecutive premierships, the last 4 as captain/coach, a feat that will surely never be equalled.

Provan was big, mobile and super-fit, and as ruthless as any forward in the era of survival of the fittest. He played 19 games for NSW, 14 Tests for Australia and won 3 Clive Churchill Medals during his career.

Verdict: Provan’s size, mobility, fitness and rugged style of play would see him a success in modern rugby league.

Johnny Raper

Raper was the best player I’ve seen on a football field by quite a margin. He was a marvellous copybook tackler, famous for his cover defence, and he was an instinctive ball player. His endurance was remarkable in the days when footballers played 80 minutes, and like many great players before or since, he always seemed to have so much time, and was usually two steps ahead of the opposition.

Never a big or imposing man, perhaps the great Jack Gibson best described him as ”being small and not all that quick, but he had football instinct.

There was an intensity about him. Nobody trained like he did”. Johnny Raper won 8 premierships with St George, played 24 games for NSW and 39 tests for Australia, 8 of them as captain.

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Verdict: The modern game cries out for players with the sublime ball skills and vision that Johnny Raper had in spades, and while he’d probably be a shade too small to play in the forwards these days, he’d be ideally suited to the 5/8 role, and his defence out wide would be an added bonus.

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