ANDREW JOHNS' grace on the field was matched by a humility off it, after he was named rugby league's eighth Immortal last night. ''I'm lost for words,'' Johns said. ''The game's given me everything; to be honoured in this way is so overwhelming.''
And clearly unexpected. Asked how he felt just being nominated, Johns said: ''I don't know if I was worthy. I still don't, to be honest … it feels like I'm in a dream. I hope I don't wake up. This is without doubt one of the most special nights of my life.''
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No doubt it will be a very tactical game, but which of these two very different teams will have the goods on the day.
Just over five years after he played his last NRL game, Johns joined the exclusive club at the Men of League gala dinner in Pyrmont, bumping off the challenges by Mal Meninga, Norm Provan and Ron Coote, to do so.
That he did so so soon after retirement, against a hot field, is testament to his enormous talents. ''I don't know when it will sink in,'' Johns said. ''The other guys that were nominated, Norm and Mal and Ron; they're icons of the game. Mal - I played in his era, so it's just blown me away. It's hard to put into words. I nearly started crying [on stage]. I can't believe it. It doesn’t get any bigger. I’m fully aware of the history of the game, what’s happened before me, so to join this group, I don’t know how to put it into words.’’
Some wondered whether Johns should be inducted, given his admission that he had taken illicit drugs during his career. But the original Immortals judges made their decisions based on on-field talents only, and that route was clearly followed again. Johns, who won two premierships with Newcastle, is widely considered the greatest halfback of all time, having been named in the Team of the Century in 2008.
The Immortals concept was created in 1981 by Rugby League Week magazine, with Clive Churchill, Johnny Raper, Reg Gasnier and Bob Fulton the inaugural inductees. Graeme Langlands and Wally Lewis followed in 1999, and the late Arthur Beetson joined in 2003.
Johns won many important battles over the Maroons, and his latest is worth claiming; the Blues can at least celebrate something of a victory over Meninga, who has coached Queensland to seven consecutive State of Origin series wins. Johns has beaten him to eighth.