The Immortals: Joey’s English Peerage

By LYLE BEATON

MUCH more will be written in coming days about the sterling contribution of Andrew Johns to rugby league. His consideration as an eighth Immortal will, in itself, guarantee that.

Many icons of the game have indicated Andrew Johns should be regarded as the best rugby league player to ever play the game. Included in their number are such luminaries as Phil Gould, Peter Sterling, Brad Fittler and Warren Ryan; all figures with exemplary records at playing and/or coaching level.

While such arguments are, by their very nature, entirely subjective, it is still useful to examine them against the historical record as best we can.

Rugby league, as a sport with 117 years of history, has a wonderfully long and rich tradition of producing players of exceptional calibre. Furthermore, unlike a certain unspecified competitor on the Australian sporting landscape, it also features a number of other legitimate playing nations – each with their own history of competition at club, provincial and international levels. Not least of these is the game’s birthplace in 1895 – England.

It is perhaps trite to say that, over time, Australia has performed exceptionally well in rugby league. Nine World Cup titles since 1954 is clear testament to this fact. But it should also be remembered that Australia did not win a Test series against England/Great Britain for thirty years in the period 1921-1949 (inclusive). Other countries, most particularly France, Wales and New Zealand, have had periods of glory of differing lengths and frequencies. All of these leading teams have produced exceptional players.

It can also be safely stated that Australian rugby league has an unfortunate tendency to ignore the remainder of the world and to understate the importance of other countries to the overall fabric of the game. This has sadly been to the detriment of international football since the Super League War.

Without making judgments as to respective qualities, it is useful to compare the record of Andrew Johns and that of another great rugby league player from days past. Not an Australian player. But a man who did play in the same position and who was similarly dominant on the sporting landscape in a different era: the former St Helens, Leigh, Warrington, Lancashire and English/British halfback, Alex Murphy.

Murphy played a career total of 575 matches: 319 for St Helens (175 tries), 118 for Leigh and 67 for Warrington. Added to this were 27 Tests (16 tries) for Great Britain, two internationals for England and assorted other representative matches. This included smashing wins against Australia on tour with the (then) mighty Great Britain Lions in 1958 and 1962.

His first tour to this country, 1958, coincided with the career of the great Western Suburbs, NSW and Australian halfback, Keith Holman. The first Test of that series, played before 68,777 fans at a jam packed Sydney Cricket Ground, saw Murphy comprehensively outplayed (in his Test debut) by the wily and experienced Holman.

The quality of the then St Helens star, who had been signed at one past midnight on the day of his 16th birthday (League rules prevented a player under 16 being signed by a professional club), shone through brightly in the famous Second Test of 1958 played before a capacity crowd at the Exhibition Ground in Brisbane and won 25-18 by a British side reduced to 11 men – and with captain Alan Prescott carrying a broken arm from the third minute of play (he saw out the full game in one of the greatest acts of sporting courage ever witnessed).

Murphy was at his superlative best, carving up the Australian defence and playing a hand in the creation of Britain’s first three tries, then scoring the fourth himself. This form was carried into the third and deciding Test, again at the SCG before another massive 68,000 crowd, in which Britain played majestic football to run out 40-17 winners.

After the lessons of the First Test, Murphy had proved himself a player of the absolute highest order – missing the only other loss in the remaining 22 games played by Britain on tour. In contrast, the great Keith Holman never played another Test for Australia.

After helping Britain win back the 1960 World Cup in England, Murphy again toured Australia and New Zealand in 1962. Once more, Murphy dominated major matches on this tour. After comprehensively outplaying Australia’s Barry Muir in Britain’s First Test 31-12 win (in front of a dangerously large 70,000 plus crowd at the SCG), Murphy backed up with a winning performance in Britain’s Second Test victory, 17-10. Despite suffering an ankle injury 55 minutes into this match, Murphy was again the difference as the Ashes were retained by Britain in the first two Tests.

Even in losing sides, such as the 17-18 loss to Australia in the third “dead rubber” Test at the SCG, Murphy would often demonstrate his brilliance with superb displays. His majestic solo try in this match must still rate as one of the greatest ever witnessed in international rugby league.

Perhaps Murphy’s highlight on this remarkable tour, however, was his masterful display in the first ever club match against a touring side in Australia, the game between Britain and St George hastily scheduled for a midweek afternoon at the Sydney Cricket Ground. St George, at the very heart of a world record 11 straight premiership run between 1956 and 1966, were crushed mercilessly 33-5 before nearly 58,000 disbelieving fans; Murphy again contributing to the scoreboard with two slashing tries.

It could be reasonably suggested that if Murphy had not refused a third tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1966 (on the grounds he was not appointed captain by Britain’s selection committee), the narrow Australian win by two Tests to one may not have occurred. Certainly this was one of the closest Test series on record with the deciding game of the series, the Third Test, going right down to the wire (won 19-14 by Australia with Britain on the attack at the bell).

Alex Murphy’s record at club level was no less impressive: Challenge Cup wins at Wembley in 1961 and 1966 with St Helens, 1971 with massive underdogs Leigh (also winning man of the match) and 1974 as captain of Warrington; and five championship wins (four with St Helens and one with Warrington).

His playing career was both long and highly successful, albeit often marred by off-field controversy.

Like Johns, Murphy possessed every skill needed to control and win a game of rugby league: sublime passing, kicking, running and tackling being fundamentals of his repertoire.

Unlike Johns, Murphy was genuinely fast. He was undoubtedly one of the fastest halfbacks to ever play the game. The great Jim Sullivan had trained him hard to be just that. His scrum-base partnership with the formidable Wigan five-eighth David Bolton was arguably the fastest ever seen in the game – at any level. His ability to shred the tightest defences was appreciated by all other countries – his then equal record four tries against France in 1959 being further evidence of this fact.

A try scorer of note, his 37 tries in the 1958/1959 domestic season was a record for a halfback in England.

None of this is to downplay the ability and contribution of the magnificent Andrew Johns from Newcastle. There is no need to reflect on the qualities of this irrepressible competitor and modern phenomenon. Enough on that subject has been written previously by a range of commentators.

This brief glimpse into the career of another great halfback, whose career spanned the (poorly recorded) years 1956-1975, is simply a reminder of the richness of rugby league’s great tradition – and a cautionary note to those who would immediately portray all previous players as subservient to those playing the modern game.

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