Almanac Rugby League – Book Review: ‘The Immortals of Australian Rugby League’ by Liam Hauser


The Immortals of Australian Rugby League by Liam Hauser (Gelding Street Press, 2019)  


As a kid growing up in Sydney in the seventies, there was only one magazine I bought religiously, Rugby League Week.  Coming out on Thursdays, it was League’s bible (more New Testament than Old), independent, insightful and chock full of great photos, news, reviews, previews and opinions.  Come the weekend and a game, I’d usually grab a copy of Big League, the official match day program, too.  ‘Official’ of course meant there were limitations on content and commentary. I, along with the vast bulk of Sydney league lovers of the day, knew which of the two publications mattered more.


At its peak in the seventies and eighties, Rugby League Week had a circulation of more than one hundred thousand.  It was in this context, and with the confidence that comes when you know your product and market well, that RLW came up with the idea in 1981 of celebrating the Australian game’s best post-World War Two players.  From an initial list of one hundred, a panel of three renowned experts got it down to just four Immortals:  Reg Gasnier and Johnny Raper from the great St. George sides of the fifties and sixties, South Sydney’s Clive Churchill, the Little Master, and Manly-Warringah’s favourite son, Bob Bozo Fulton.


Nearly forty years on and the number of Immortals has grown to thirteen.  RLW unfortunately ceased in 2017 so now the Immortals concept is in the hands of the Australian Rugby League Commission which, in 2018, expanded the format to allow for the inclusion of pre-World War Two players.  Three from this period have now been added, the game’s key early figure, Dally Messenger, along with Frank Burge and Dave Brown.


Liam Hauser’s The Immortals of Australian Rugby League profiles each of the thirteen members of this illustrious club. As well as those already mentioned, the other Immortals are Queenslanders Wally Lewis, Artie Beetson and Mal Meninga, Newcastle’s Andrew Joey Johns and two more players from those incredible St. George sides, Graeme Changa Langlands and Norm Sticks Provan.


Simply arranged in the order of in which the players were named as Immortals, the book is beautifully presented with copious use of historic and other photographs to complement each entry.


Hauser organises his material well, drawing mostly on various secondary sources for his profiles including newspaper accounts of the day, rugby league histories, personal accounts and observations, and official records. Each entry is structured to focus on the player’s club history before looking at their representative career and any coaching, administrative or media roles they may have been involved with after their playing days ended.


Hauser includes observations and vignettes into the players personalities and lives, including after they retired.  I like this approach as it helps personalise each of them, adding depth to their character (and to the book’s content).  Examples include Andrew Johns’ mental health difficulties and the alcohol and drug problems that threatened to derail his career, Johnny Raper’s alleged naked ‘bowler hat’ affair while on tour in Yorkshire in 1967, and Mal Meninga’s foray into local Canberra politics that lasted all of 20 seconds.


I have one criticism:  the way in which web-sourced material is referenced, with three, four or five lines given over to ‘http://….’ after a quote.  Acknowledging sources is important but this structure is distracting and makes for dull presentation.  Fortunately, there aren’t many such web references although Messenger’s profile is particularly cursed by them.


That aside, the book is a worthy addition to the literature of rugby league.  It includes plenty on the ups and downs of careers, and many fine reminders of the brilliance of these thirteen individuals.  Like this quote about King Wally Lewis: “If you said ‘Wally’ to a vast percentage of Queenslanders, they would know exactly who you are talking about.” And even some of us south-of-the-Tweed cockroaches, too.


Adam Muyt  


You can purchase copies of The Immortals of Australian Rugby League across Australia through stores such as Dymocks, Harry Hartog and QBD as well as via multiple online providers such as Booktopia (publisher’s recommendation), Angus and Robertson, Boffins Books, etc.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Adam Muyt

Born into rugby league, found Aussie rules, fell for soccer, flirts a little with union. Author of three books, including 'Clogball' (2023) and 'Maroon & Blue' (2006). Lives in Tasmania and is looking forward to soon yelling out, 'Go Devils!'

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