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Opinion

Six of the best: The standout options for the ultimate honour in the NRL Immortal debate

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Expert
28th November, 2023
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With the NRL looking set to finally add another Immortal or two, six players stand out from the long list of candidates who could be in line for rugby league’s highest honour. 

There are dozens of players that you could make a case for being in contention for Immortal status and whenever the debate flares up the “what about this guy” arguments spring forth at a rapid rate. 

The NRL launched the Hall of Fame five years ago, adding six members to the 100 players voted in 2008 as being the finest from the first century of the sport in Australia. 

After an exhaustive and expensive process in drawing up criteria, induction cycles, rules and regulations for the process of first becoming a Hall of Famer and then an Immortal, in true rugby league fashion they went off script the first chance they got.

Two players were supposed to be named Immortals but that ended up being five because Phil Gould, on the 10-man selection committee, came up with the idea of adding three pre-World War II players to the list because it was their last chance to get the honour under the system.

So Dave Brown, Frank Burge and Dally Messenger got the nod along with Norm Provan and Mal Meninga to give rugby league a 13-man team of Immortals.

The chances of any player whose career came before Provan’s record-breaking run with St George during their 1956-66 premiership era are now virtually non-existent.

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From the premiership’s subsequent pre-expansion era in the 1970s, Ron Coote is the standout option as a potential Immortal.

The back-rower won six premierships (four with Souths and a couple with the Roosters) from nine grand final appearances in an 11-year stretch, represented NSW and Australia and had a reputation for his tough but fair professional play at a time marred by on-field thuggery.

As the competition expanded in the 1980s, Parramatta not only broke their premiership drought but won four titles in six years with Peter Sterling calling the shots.

They had a champion team with Ray Price, Mick Cronin, Brett Kenny and Eric Grothe deservedly remembered as all-time greats in their position but Sterling was the brains behind their dominance with a combination of skill and courage that would make him a million-dollar player on today’s money.

Peter Sterling

Legendary Eel Peter Sterling (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Even when the Eels faded in the latter stages of his career, Sterling was perhaps even more impressive with his individual performances as he tried to drag a depleted roster back to finals glory.

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In the 1990s, two halfbacks followed in Sterling’s footsteps to spearhead Canberra and Brisbane’s glory days in Ricky Stuart and Allan Langer but the common thread in the success of those two juggernauts was Glenn Lazarus.

At a time when 80-minute props were a dying breed as the leniency of interchange rules increased, Lazarus had a rare ability to combine size and stamina to continually bend back defensive lines from the kick-off to the final play of the game. 

His representative career was interrupted by the Super League war but even in his final couple of seasons at the Storm when he was past his best, Lazarus was able to instil a winning DNA into the Melbourne Storm as they created history by winning the title at just their second attempt. 

Storm skipper Glenn Lazarus with the NRL trophy in 1999. (Stuart Milligan / Allsport)

Three Maroons from this century should be on the Immortal shortlist – Darren Lockyer, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston. Cameron Smith will be a shoo-in the next time the Immortals are pored over but he is yet to serve the mandatory five years in retirement to be eligible.

On record alone, Lockyer stands above anyone else in the running – 59 Tests for Australia, 36 Origins for Queensland and four premierships for Brisbane among his 355 NRL appearances.

A superb captain who managed to master two distinct positions after switching from fullback to five-eighth midway through his career, his impact at every level was immense.

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Slater re-imagined the role of the fullback after taking over from Lockyer as the number one No.1 in the game and also experienced success at club, state and international level as an integral member of those dominant sides, plus he earned a Dally M Medal along the way.

Thurston’s record is different in that he was only a minor player in his first premiership win with Canterbury in 2004 before doing virtually everything to get the Cowboys over the line in the Grand Final 11 years later. 

He was also a star in the Origin and Test arenas but his greatest individual achievement was winning the Dally M Medal four times, ahead of Smith and Andrew Johns with three each.

Unless the NRL goes off script again and disregards the selection criteria, Thurston and Slater will first need to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before they can reach Immortal status.

Smith, who retired in 2020, is a couple of years away from eligibility while the likes of Paul Gallen, Matt Scott and Greg Inglis, who hung up the boots the previous season, would also be Hall of Fame chances.

After the interruptions of the pandemic when ensuring the competition was able to remain afloat, the NRL needs to get back to celebrating its history.

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The Hall of Fame needs to also get due recognition, not be considered an afterthought to the Immortals race.

Six players – Mark Graham, Cliff Lyons, Ricky Stuart, Gorden Tallis, Steve Menzies and Petero Civoniceva – were added in 2018, and another four a year later, Danny Buderus, Ruben Wiki, Stacey Jones and Craig Young.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 16: (L to R) Johnathan Thurston of Australia is congratulated by team mate Billy Slater after he scored during the 2008 Rugby League World Cup Semi Final match between the Australian Kangaroos and Fiji at the Sydney Football Stadium on November 16, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Johnathan Thurston with Billy Slater in 2008. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Past greats the calibre of Bob Lindner, Greg Alexander, Michael O’Connor, Paul Harragon, Kevin Walters, Rod Reddy and Steve Renouf are among the players who have been shortlisted in the past and are worthy of this honour along with more recently retired options like Geoff Toovey, Nathan Hindmarsh, Justin Hodges, Ben Kennedy and Anthony Minichiello.

It’s impossible to predict which way an Immortals voting panel would go, whether they’ll pick one more Immortal next year or two – as someone who grew up watching Sterling weave his magic for the Eels, he’d be my choice but with Coote turning 80 next year, he could garner the sentimental vote from the the judges.

Lazarus and Lockyer are also thoroughly deserving while the other two Maroons greats will likely have to wait until they go through the Hall of Fame stage of the process – it’s splitting hairs when you are comparing players at this level of greatness, which is why the Immortals debate, like the award, will live forever.

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