How Lockyer almost became an Immortal last year
Darren Lockyer would already be an Immortal today, if events had unfolded a bit differently last year.
Lockyer was on the cusp of being made an Immortal in 2017 before the ownership of the famous award transferred from Rugby League Week magazine to the NRL.
No rugby league award in the history of the game has generated as much debate as the Immortals, and that is only set to continue now that NRL CEO Todd Greenberg has confirmed a ninth Immortal would be inducted in 2018.
Former Rugby League Week managing editor Martin Lenehan has told NRL.com how the magazine was moving towards naming a ninth Immortal before the magazine was closed and all its intellectual property, including the Immortals, was purchased by the NRL.
Lenehan was adamant Lockyer would have been "a certainty" if that judging process had gone ahead.
In 2012, a panel of 18 voted Andrew Johns as the eighth Immortal, but even then Lenehan said there was support for the former Brisbane, Queensland and Australian captain until it was made clear a player needed to have been retired for five years to be considered.
The Immortals concept was born in 1981 when the magazine, under the stewardship of then editor Ian Heads, inducted John Raper, Reg Gasnier, Clive Churchill and Bob Fulton.
The original Immortals judging panel included legendary coach Harry Bath, respected scribe Tom Goodman and the great broadcaster and 1939 Balmain premiership winner Frank Hyde.
Eighteen years later Graeme Langlands and Wally Lewis were added, followed by Arthur Beetson (2003) and Andrew Johns (2012).
Lenehan, who worked at the magazine for 22 years and was editor when Beetson was inducted, said that in 2012 there was a school of thought among the judges, although far from unanimous, that the award should move forward, not backwards, and once a player was overlooked their chances of being revisited lessened as the years rolled by.
Leading figures in the game were adamant that a pre-Second World War player should be honoured, with the great Dally Messenger's name often brought up in those discussions.
"There was a strong belief in 2012 that it should keep moving forward and Andrew Johns took it into a new era," Lenehan told NRL.com.
"A lot of people on the judging panel felt like it shouldn't go back to the 1960s and that if you were overlooked three or four times then how would you make it in now.
"Locky would have obviously taken it forward even more… and I had very much got on board with the idea that it should keep moving forward.
"If we had inducted an Immortal in 2017 then Locky would have been an absolute certainty, because we would have had the same judging panel and probably added to it, so the same people in 2012 who thought he should be an Immortal would have been involved again."
Lenehan recalled how in 2016 Rugby League Week decided to put more structure around the announcement of Immortals, and do it every five years.
"As everyone said, it had been a bit ad hoc up until then even though that was part of the romance of it in some ways," Lenehan said.
"We were talking about it in 2016 with an eye to doing it in 2017.
"We had even gone as far as speaking to the SCG Trust about staging an event out in front of the Members Stand to recreate the famous photo from 1981 of the original four Immortals. We'd been out to the Trust and spoken to them about using the venue and we'd rung all the living Immortals about coming to Sydney and being part of that announcement."
Before that happened, however, the magazine folded after 47 years.
"In 2012 it was the biggest and best judging panel we put together and there were quite a few people, who I won't name, who basically said 'why don't we just put Darren Lockyer in and all go home'," Lenehan told NRL.com.
"We gave the judges a list of 10 people to consider, without Lockyer on it, and the question was raised as to why we weren't voting for him.
"Darren had retired in 2011 and at the magazine we had come to the view that blokes should be retired for five years before being considered so their legacy could have time to flourish.
"That was an unwritten rule and, while I can't speak for the other judges, that was a reason in my opinion that Darren didn't get in back in 2012.
"Andrew Johns obviously got the most votes, and Mal Meninga and Norm Provan were high in the discussions and got votes. We didn't go back to pre-World War II so we didn't have to weigh up the guys like Dally Messenger."
On a list of greats the judges considered in 2012 was Andrew Johns, Norm Provan, Ron Coote, Steve Rogers, Glenn Lazarus, Allan Langer, Mal Meninga, Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny and Brad Fittler.
The judging panel was broadened in 2012 to 18 members after it had been kept mostly in-house previously and featured Rugby League Week editors and some media identities.
It was the first time the Immortals had been given a say, so Langlands, Fulton, Raper, Gasnier and Lewis cast votes.
Daily Telegraph columnist Phil Rothfield, historian David Middleton, former coach and journalist Roy Masters, Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, broadcaster Ray Hadley, commentator Ray Warren and former ARLC chairman John Grant were among the judges. The panel included current and past Rugby League Week editors Ian Heads, Norm Tasker, Tony Durkin, Geoff Prenter, Mitchell Dale and Lenehan.
The criteria for judging each player was solely based on the candidate's on-field credentials. This went down like a lead balloon with several judges who believed Johns's off-field activities should discount him.
The point was then made by one of the judges that some of the players on the list were not saints, and it would be hypocritical to single out one man in such a way.
Fulton was convincing in his push for Johns, and the ensuing vote has reflected the fact that most of the panel agreed that the champion halfback's genius as a footballer could not be denied.
The former St George Dragons on the panel had argued passionately for 10-time premiership winner Provan in the judging meeting, and it can be presumed they followed suit with their allocations, but the system in place ensured anonymity.
The voting process involved each judge allocating three, two or one points to their top three players of choice on the 10-man list.
Lenehan said an accountant with impeccable credentials, who was also a scrutineer, was brought in to monitor the voting.
Johns won the vote, with Provan and Meninga in the top three.
RLW mulled over the merits of installing two Immortals in 2017. The NRL has not yet publicised the formal process for this year's Immortal selection.
There is a strong push for Provan while Meninga's credentials, as outlined by Broncos legend Steve Renouf in a recent NRL.com column, are undeniable.
"When Rugby League Week was sold to the NRL in early 2017 the Immortals was something they had always coveted, and a lot of people thought it belonged with the NRL anyway," Lenehan said.
"We treated it with the greatest respect and I am absolutely delighted that if anything good came out of the end of our great magazine it is that the NRL has control of the Immortals.
"When Johnathan Thurston won the competition for the Cowboys in 2015 I had people in the media ringing the very next day asking when he was going to be made an Immortal.
"To be getting so many phone calls about a guy that hadn't even retired always reinforced to me how incredible the concept was and how amazing the Immortal brand had become."