Bob Fulton backs calls for Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns to join rugby league’s Immortals

By Paul Kent, Daily Telegraph

RUGBY league Immortal Bob Fulton has declared all that will stop Andrew Johns from being crowned the next Immortal is his off-field history – which should not be considered under established criteria.

“The original intention of the award is to recognise a player’s ability on the field, nothing else,” Fulton said.

The endorsement comes amid fears the voting will be overshadowed by a controversy similar to what marred rugby league’s Team of the Century in 2008, when the game’s top 10 players were prevented from publication to save the concept from embarrassment.

The voting process has since been dogged by speculation that blocs were formed to influence the team’s selection.

The Immortals concept is not immune from such politics. Already one former player’s manager has contacted several judges in recent days to campaign for his client’s inclusion as the eighth Immortal when judges cast their votes today.

The eighth Immortal will be named at the Men of League Ball in grand final week.

Johns is favourite to be named the next Immortal, ahead of Queensland coach Mal Meninga and former St George captain Norm Provan.

Men of League founder Ron Coote, Glenn Lazarus, Steve Rogers, Allan Langer, Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling, Brad Fittler and Ken Irvine have also been mentioned.

However, Johns is the only player named in the game’s top 10 players who could also be made the eighth Immortal.

Seven are already Immortalised. The final two, Dally Messenger and Frank Burge, are ineligible because they played before World War II, one of the Immortals’ original stipulations.

While logic suggests Johns will be the next Immortal, under these guidelines he is no sure bet. Some believe his admitted social drug use during his career is not befitting Immortal status, even though the rules state only on-field performance should be considered.

“Johns came through an era when sportsmen and women become the headline not for their sporting abilities but for their behaviour,” said Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett, who is one of 18 judges who will cast a vote today. “The previous Immortals were never criticised for their off-field behaviour, which was no better and no worse than today’s player.”

For the same reasons, Coote’s contribution as the Men of League founder, and Meninga’s six straight series wins as Queensland coach, also fall outside the criteria.

Yet Fulton is concerned that Johns’ drug admission could be counted against him.

“If Andrew Johns isn’t the eighth Immortal it will obviously have something to do with off-field stuff,” he said.

“Johns was the halfback in the Team of the Century. He is considered the best player in the most important position.

“He was the prototype, the new breed, and took halfback play to where it is now. And the extension of that is seen in the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and the new breed coming through like (Daly) Cherry-Evans.

“The other thing that Andrew Johns did is change the face of the game.”

Another question mark is the controversial 3-2-1 voting system to be used for the first time. It is generally considered that Johns will poll either three points or no points, depending on the judges’ view of his off-field behaviour. This leaves it open for a popular second pick to sneak through.

Both Bennett and Fulton are adamant a concrete set of rules needs to be implemented around the concept.

As well as a misguided idea on the selection criteria, other vagaries such as the vastly different induction times – there have been three, in 1981 (Fulton, John Raper, Clive Churchill and Reg Gasnier), 1999 (Graeme Langlands and Wally Lewis) and again in 2003 (Arthur Beetson) – spark concerns for the integrity of the award.
Some fear future inclusions could be as much about boosting the flagging circulation of Rugby League Week, which owns the concept, as they are about properly honouring the game’s greats.

The Australian Rugby League previously tried to get the rights to the Immortals but was denied by RLW.

It’s understood that ARLC chairman John Grant and interim CEO Shane Mattiske met representatives of the magazine last week in the lead-up to today’s vote.

“You’re playing with the game’s history here. The history is not yours,” ARL chief executive Geoff Carr told RLW managing editor Martin Lenehan around the time of Beetson’s inclusion.

Yesterday he said: “Beetson was the right bloke, the game would have agreed with it, but the game had to listen to The Footy Show to see who it was.”

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