Yesterday was an occasion much in praise of famous men. In a pleasant
lunch-room overlooking Hyde Park, the talk was of Gasnier and Raper, Messenger
and Lewis, and a hundred more.
Judge John Raper was there, minus his legal wig but maintaining his
impeccable attendance record at social outings, and so too were Bobby Fulton,
Noel Kelly, Keith Barnes, Ron Coote, Keith Holman and many others.
Sadly, a bout of flu kept away Rodney Churchill, proud son of the man who
was officially acclaimed yesterday as the greatest Australian rugby league
player of all time: Clive Churchill, the Little Master.
A fascinating quest by Rugby League Week magazine had its ending and its
beginning yesterday in the announcement of the top 100 players of all time-in
As one of the six judges-along with Frank Hyde, Bob Bax, Frank Stanton,
George Crawford and Ian Walsh-I can record that the task was an agonising and
near-impossible one, albeit a captivating voyage through 85 years of football.
I'm sure the other judges experienced, as I did, the 3 am jolt: "Bugger, I left
* * * * * * * out." Each of us picked our top 100 independently, and then the
computer considered, shuffled and spat out the results.
The published 100, supported by statistical research by David Middleton,
provide a multitude of controversies and talking points. Right at the top, there
will be argument over whether Churchill deserves his No 1 ranking over such men
as Johnny Raper (2), Reg Gasnier (3), Dally Messenger (4), Graeme Langlands (5)
and other luminaries. I reckon the judges collectively got it right when they
picked the Souths' champion at the top.
To me, Churchill has always been the quintessential rugby league player,
the shining example of the game's egalitarian nature, the star witness for the
contention that league, unlike some sports, caters even-handedly for men of all
shapes and sizes. "Tigger" crammed into a small package the qualities of
courage, skill, loyalty, intelligence, leadership, longevity as a footballer,
and never-say-die spirit.
Churchill was a dashing free spirit with the ball, the most fearless of
tacklers, a goalkicker and general play-kicker. His qualities effectively added
up to the manual of rugby league. He had everything except size. Others through
the years have sparkled with more individual brilliance in certain areas, but
was there ever a comparable footballing package?
The list of the chosen 100 is full of fascinating big bits and little
bits. The top players voted in each position were: Fullback: Churchill (1),
Wing: Harold Horder (12), Centre: Reg Gasnier (3), Five-eighth: Bob Fulton(6),
Half-back: Duncan Thompson (10), Lock: Johnny Raper (2), Second-rower: Frank
Burge (17), Prop: Arthur Beetson (16), Hooker: Ian Walsh (24).
Younger fans will pore over the list to see how the champions of the
1990s fared. They did well, with Wally Lewis (7) and the recently retired Peter
Sterling (11) heading a line-up of seven other current players: Mal Meninga,
Brett Kenny, Bradley Clyde, Laurie Daley, Michael O'Connor, Allan Langer and Bob
Each judge will have personal reservations. My own main one centres on the
old-time halfback Chris McKivat. McKivat came in at No 42 behind four other
halves, Duncan Thompson, Sterlo, Keith Holman and Joe Busch. The more I learned
of McKivat and his time, the more I am inclined to think he was as important to
the early game as The Master, Dally Messenger.
McKivat's decision to switch to league from union in 1909 (for Pound
200)was the catalyst to the mass changeover by the Wallabies of that year-the
event that secured rugby league's future in very shaky times. But more than
that, McKivat was a halfback of supreme and commanding skills, captain of the
record-smashing 1911 Kangaroos (a tour on which he played 30 games in
succession), one of the greatest leaders the game has seen, and later the coach
of North Sydney when Norths won the competition for the only time(1921-22). He
was special, though under-appreciated these days, understandably.
As much as those picked, those missed out will fuel the debate. That
impressive second list would include such players as Gary Belcher (he finished
101), Dan Dempsey, Eric Harris, Mike Cleary, Andy Norval, Max Krilich, Dan
Frawley, Elwyn Walters, Ben Elias and Steve Roach-and a collection of other
champions or near-champions.
You may even have a name in mind yourself.