Rugby league says goodbye to an Immortal
When the family of Graeme Langlands were asked if they wanted anything else placed on his casket besides his St George and Australian jerseys, they told the funeral celebrant: "Not unless you can find those white boots".
However, as former St George Dragons teammate Steve Edge told the packed gathering of rugby league royalty to farewell the game's fifth Immortal at Woronora Memorial Park on Monday, Langlands had left the infamous white boots hanging on the crossbar of a goal post in Huddersfield.
As another of the game's legends, Bob McCarthy noted about the 1975 grand final, which most believe was Langlands' worst game after a painkilling injection in his foot hit a nerve and the Dragons lost 38-0 to Eastern Suburbs, "everyone still said afterwards what a great player he was".
It was a mantra repeated by speaker after speaker and those who attended the funeral service, which included fans, officials, the entire St George Illawarra Dragons playing squad and coaching staff, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and many of Langlands' former teammates and opponents.
Among them were Billy Smith, Rod Reddy, Craig Young, Graeme and Peter Wynn, Keith Barnes, George Piggins, Ron Coote, Mick Cronin, Steve Mortimer, Ricky Walford, Mark Coyne, Paul McGregor and Brian Johnston.
Fellow immortal John Raper, who was described as a "brother" to Langlands, was unable to attend as he is reportedly suffering dementia – the same illness that last week claimed his former teammate, aged 76.
"Chook [Raper], Chang [Langlands] and their mate Billy [Smith] played very hard on and off the field in the early days," Raper's wife Caryl said.
"In the later days, they would meet down at Wanda café and have hot chocolate, cakes and ice blocks. And by 7pm they'd be in their pyjamas watching television. Go figure."
She read a brief statement on behalf of Raper: "Chang, it was an honour and privilege to play alongside you and watch you grow into the champion you became".
Asked his best memory of Langlands, Smith told NRL.com: "Probably drinking at the pub. We had a good time but we argued a lot".
Tales of Langlands, Raper and Smith's partying are legendary in rugby league circles and many of them were repeated at the funeral service or later at St George Leagues Club, where a wake was held, but mourners were also told that Langlands didn't drink alcohol until he was 19 years old.
Those who knew him well painted a picture of a naturally talented footballer, who was shy, often cranky and immensely loyal to his mates and the Dragons.
With the exception of representative teams, Langlands only wore the famous Red V as that was also the jersey of the Wollongong club, from where St George secretary Frank Facer signed him in 1962.
Childhood friend and former Wollongong teammate Ray Carney described his relationship with Facer as "like father and son", and said Langlands "knew no one when he went to St George and made friends for life".
Renowned boxing trainer John Lewis, who was also a close friend of Langlands, said he "loved Chook" and had been upset that their former Dragons captain Norm Provan had not been made an Immortal.
"I couldn't believe someone so great could be so humble," Lewis said of Langlands.
He was also described as intensely private and his family asked friends and former teammates to come forward with stories to help them learn more about him.
"On the field, there's no doubt that his life was complete," daughter Monique Langlands-Hunt said.
"However, off the field he was a man who struggled at times to find a peaceful ease, like normal life was just never a natural fit."
Former teammate Rod Reddy, who played under Langlands as captain-coach at St George from 1972 to 1976, said he was intimidating until you got to know him.
"He was just a competitor, he was never beaten," Reddy said. "I wouldn't say he was the greatest trainer I have ever seen but he definitely put the effort in and made sure everyone else beat him in because if you didn't beat him in you had to go again."
Much was made of Langlands' notorious grumpiness, with Edge describing him as "the world champion for getting the shits".
He was also regarded as a great leader, having been captain-coach of both St George and Australia, and fittingly his casket was carried into the service to Elvis Presley's "My Way".
The service ended with one minute's applause and Bruce Springsteen's version of "When The Saints Go Marching In".
"It is a very sad day for rugby league and a very sad day for the Dragons but we need to acknowledge the great things that Graeme Langlands did for St George, his state and country," said Johnston, who is the Dragons chairman.
"He was an iconic figure who bought a lot of people to the game to watch him and inspired a lot of players who wanted to emulate his feats but what Changa did no one could replicate.
"He played 235 games – 227 of those in first grade – and scored 1554 points for St George over 14 seasons. That won't be repeated."