Naming five new Immortals honours past, looks after future

As they debated the merits of the 10 players on the short list to be inducted as the ninth and 10th Immortals, the judges of the game's most prestigious honour expressed concerns they may be putting a line through the other eight candidates forever.

With up to two new Immortals to be considered every four years under the NRL's revamped awards format, and players becoming eligible five years after retiring, it is widely predicted Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston will be inducted in 2026.

Therefore, after it was finally decided the players from the pre-World War II era should be considered for the first time since the Immortals concept began in 1981, there was a fear Dave Brown, Frank Burge and Dally Messenger may never be granted the status they deserved.

Ditto for Norm Provan, who captained St George in 10 of their 11 consecutive grand final triumphs between 1956 and 1966, and was also coach in the last four, but had previously been overlooked in 1981, 1999, 2003 and 2012.

The man whose image and name adorns the Provan-Summons Trophy awarded to the NRL premiers, along with Arthur Summons, has been in ill health and was unable to attend the Immortals ceremony at the SCG on Wednesday night.

It was Phil Gould who suggested to the other members of the 10-man selection panel at a meeting in the SCG boardroom on Tuesday that all three of the pre-war candidates be included, enabling them to choose Provan and Mal Meninga.

In doing so, they could relieve those charged with selecting future Immortals of the burden of trying to compare legends from a century ago, who played a game far different to today's version, with the code's recent stars.  

The view of those who chose each of the previous eight Immortals had been that the concept should always look forward and by inducting Brown, Burge and Messenger now, the pre-war era will not need to be revisited .

Of the other names on the shortlist, there had been a widespread belief that Meninga and Darren Lockyer were players from the game's more recent period worthy of induction.

Meninga, who is the only player to have been on four Kangaroo Tours and won three premierships with Canberra, had also been on previous shortlists but Lockyer has time on his side.

After retiring in 2011 as Australia's most capped player and captain, Lockyer would be a favourite for inclusion in 2022.

However, the new guidelines established by the NRL for the revamped Immortals concept restricting the number of times a player can be shortlisted to three meant the opportunities for Brown, Burge, Messenger, Provan and Meninga to be afforded the honour were limited.

Lockyer, Ron Coote, Ken Irvine, Brian Bevan and Duncan Hall were the other five players on the short list. 

Even if those who missed out were considered in future Immortals Years, they would soon be on a collision course with the likes of Smith and Thurston.

Players in the Hall of Fame, including the latest inductees, Mark Graham, Ricky Stuart, Petero Civoniceva, Gorden Tallis, Cliff Lyons and Steve Menzies, will also be eligible for consideration.

After a lengthy discussion before the 10 judges cast their confidential votes on a 3-2-1 basis, it was decided Brown, Burge and Messenger should join the two players who polled highest – Provan and Meninga – as Immortals. 

Provan becomes the fourth member of the famous Dragons team which dominated the game like no side before or since to be afforded Immortal status after John Raper, Reg Gasnier and Graeme Langlands, while Meninga joins former Queensland team-mates Wally Lewis and Arthur Beetson.

Bob Fulton, Andrew Johns and Clive Churchill are the other Immortals. 

The outcome of the secret ballot validates the reason Brown, Burge and Messenger had never previously been considered, despite being regarded as three of the greatest players of all time and playing a significant role in the game's history.

As no one involved in the process had ever seen them play, it was decided when the Immortals concept was first conceived by Rugby League Week, under the editorship of Ian Heads, that only players whose careers had occurred after the end of World War II in 1945 should be considered.

Heads was one of the 10 people charged with selecting the new Immortals, along with another ex-Rugby League Week editor, Norm Tasker, Fulton, Lewis and Johns, Gould and fellow coaching great Wayne Bennett, Fox Sports head of sport Steve Crawley, veteran Nine commentator Ray Warren and NRL CEO Todd Greenberg.

While Greenberg had announced earlier this year that there would be up to two Immortals chosen, there was never going to be only one and the popular view was that there should be one from the game's pre-war era and one modern-day player.

Messenger, whose greatness as a player and role in establishing the game in 1908 is already recognised with the NRL's player of the year award – the Dally M Medal - named in his honour, was considered a virtual certainty.

Yet what of Burge, whose 146 tries in 154 first-grade games during a 16-year career from 2011 was only recently bettered by another forward in Steve Menzies, and Brown, nicknamed the "Bradman of League" for his prolific pointscoring and Australia's youngest captain at 22 years of age in 1935.

The selection panel agreed unanimously that they deserved Immortal status too, and so five players were inducted in a decision that ensures the legends who built the game's foundations will be celebrated by future generations, along with the likes of Smith and Thurston.