IT’S a fallacy, oft-spouted in rugby league, that you can’t compare players from different eras. Confirmation that the NRL will name a ninth Immortal this year has again breathed life into the tired argument.
The fact is we can, we do and we should. We always have and we always will. There’s no better celebration of our game than to acknowledge its greatest.
Where most arguments begin and end, particularly when it comes to the Immortals concept, come back to the vagaries in the criteria by which they have been judged.
The initial four – Clive Churchill, John Raper, Reg Gasnier and Bob Fulton – were named by Rugby League Week in 1981. In 1999 it set out to name the next Immortal. Judges couldn’t decide so they named two – Graeme Langlands and Wally Lewis.
Langlands’ career began before, and ultimately overlapped, Fulton’s, so why was he was initially left out, and what changed to warrant his inclusion 18 years later? That’s not to suggest, in any way, that Langlands isn’t deserving of his Immortal status, it just points to inconsistencies in how they were considered.
Similarly in 2003, the magazine named Arthur Beetson as the seventh Immortal. His career preceded Lewis’ so why was he passed over in 1999, but then included in 2003?
What also can’t be discounted as a factor is the fluctuating fortunes of the magazine itself. In 1981 when it created the concept, it was the game’s undisputed bible. By the time it named Beetson in 2003 it’s relevance had greatly deminished.
There’s no disputing that Beetson belongs in that company, but the timing seemed as much about breathing new life into the magazine as it did about finding the seventh Immortal.
The timing of Andrew Johns’ induction in 2012 was apt – though it did come with a newly specific direction that players were to be judged strictly by their on-field exploits. There was no such stipulation previously.
The next Immortal will be the first named since the NRL took official ownership of the concept. For ‘The Immortals’ to continue to represent rugby league’s Olympus, the next step is crucial
Not one of the current eight does not deserve their place. But the Immortals’ true prestige lies in its exclusivity. It is not a Hall of Fame, it identifies the gods among greats.
In terms of naming the ninth, three main contenders have emerged. Norm Provan, Mal Meninga and Darren Lockyer. All are worthy candidates but you need to ask some questions.
When it comes to the Immortals argument, there really should be not be an argument at all. (They might as well give Jonathan Thurston and Cameron Smith their plaques right now).
There’s no questioning Provan’s greatness. However, he was presumably considered in 1981 and overlooked for four of his contemporaries. He was considered again in 1999, again in 2003 and again in 2012.
To be truly an Immortal, would you need to be considered five times before being included? You could say they got it wrong in ‘81, maybe again in ‘99 but two more times after that? You can ask the same question about Meninga. What has changed about his resume since he was overlooked in 2003 and 2012?
That’s not to say at all that past players – Dally Messenger for example – can’t or shouldn’t be considered. The criteria to name the first four was restricted to post-war players that judges Frank Hyde, Harry Bath and Tom Goodman had seen in the flesh.
Were those rules to change, Messenger would be considered for the first time. Provan and Meninga have already been considered multiple times and overlooked.
In 2018, Lockyer makes the strongest case. On numbers he still holds the record for Test appearances with 59 (63 if you include Super League Tests as other nations do) and Test tries, four premierships a then-record 355 NRL games.
On the numbers, only future Immortal Cameron Smith has (and will likely ever) surpass him. He remains the only player to win the Golden Boot in two different positions. He changed the way fullbacks played – we wouldn’t have Billy Slater if we hadn’t had Darren Lockyer.
More than any other player, he dragged Queensland out of the doldrums to set their decade-long run of dominance in motion. In the modern era, only Thurston is comparable as a clutch player.
At the very least, Lockyer has Kickoff’s vote – cue debate.