POLL: Larrikin Joey joins the exclusive Immortals

TO start with, a couple of anecdotes – passed on by former teammates – that give an insight into the mindset of a champion.

The first took place back in Andrew Johns’ first full season in big-time rugby league, 1994, when the Newcastle Knights were playing North Sydney.

Johns and his rival halfback, the experienced Jason Taylor, had been at each other like terriers all game.

Late in proceedings, Newcastle scored out wide and Johns faced a crucial kick from the sideline.

Taylor continued to sledge his rookie opponent as Johns placed the Steeden on the mound of sand and stepped out his run-up.

Pausing before he began his approach, Johns broke into a beaming smile and directed a cheeky wink at Taylor.

He then banged the conversion straight over the black dot.

A few years later, and by now an established representative player, the man they call ‘‘Joey’’ was on a bonding session with his NSW teammates in Kings Cross.

The Blues were in high spirits when in walked their mortal enemies, the Queensland Origin players. The two teams exchanged icy looks but did their best to ignore each other.

But at some stage in the evening, Johns crossed paths with the most fearsome Cane Toad of the era, big Gorden Tallis.

Tallis towered over Johns and snarled: ‘‘I’m gonna run at you. All night.’’

A trademark grin appeared on Joey’s face.

‘‘I don’t give a f...,’’ he replied. ‘‘I’ll smash ya.’’

And deep down inside, Tallis knew it was true.

To be fair to Taylor and Tallis, they were neither the first nor the last opponents to be outwitted by Johns.

A larrikin with supreme self-confidence in his own ability, the boy from Cessnock became the most dominant player of his generation and arguably of all time.

 When he was announced on Thursday night as rugby league’s eighth Immortal – joining fellow Novocastrian Clive Churchill, Reg Gasnier, John Raper, Bob Fulton, Graeme Langlands, Arthur Beetson and Wally Lewis – there was scarcely a murmur of discontent.

Norm Provan’s 10 premierships with St George – the last four as captain-coach – will probably never be matched.

Mal Meninga’s four Kangaroo tours, three premierships with Canberra and mighty feats for Queensland ensured he was a valid and worthy candidate.

But how could rugby league take itself seriously if there was no place for Johns in the game’s most exclusive club?

The 13-man code has produced many outstanding halfbacks, especially over the past 30 years.

Peter Sterling and Steve Mortimer ruled the 1980s, then Ricky Stuart, Greg Alexander and Allan Langer reigned in the early 1990s.

More recently, Johnathan Thurston has assumed similar stature.

But when Australia’s Team of the Century was named in 2008, there was only one candidate for the No.7 jersey – Andrew Johns – who not only had the attacking skill set to match any of the aforementioned, but was also able to defend like a back-rower.

His record speaks for itself. An unmatched 249 games for Newcastle, including premierships in 1997 and 2001, 21 Tests and 23 Origins.

Three times he won the Dally M medal for player of the year, twice he earned the Golden Boot as the world’s best player. Not forgetting his Clive Churchill Medal for a man-of-the-match display in the 2001 grand final.

Along the way, he scored 2176 points for the Knights – the most by any player in history until Canterbury’s Hazem El Masri superseded his record.

But it was not just Johns’s on-field deeds that captured the imagination. In an age when players and coaches have become increasingly paranoid about speaking their mind, Johns remained an unaffected, fun-loving character.

Of course, he was no angel. Some argued his drug-taking revelations in 2007 should have precluded him from consideration as an Immortal.

There were myriad  other controversies throughout his career. At times it seemed Joey was a human headline.

But as a player, he had no peer. Even the likes of Brad Fittler, Laurie Daley and Darren Lockyer played second fiddle when Johns was in their team.

One person well placed to evaluate Johns’s place in history is former Knights coach Michael Hagan. 

Hagan played alongside Lewis and Meninga for Queensland.

He coached Johns for six years at the Knights, and against him at Origin level.

And in recent years Hagan has been assistant coach of an all-conquering Queensland team that has included maestros like Lockyer, Thurston, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith.

‘‘In the era in which he played, I think he was clearly the best player I have seen and probably most of us have seen,’’ Hagan said yesterday.

‘‘He’s been talked about in the wider context of the game – which is very hard over 100 years – but certainly in my time, I don’t think there were many other players who had the capacity to do what he did on the footy field.

‘‘He certainly changed the way the way the game was played ... in the end, I think we were all quite pleased and privileged to have been able to watch him play, to be honest.’’

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