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Fulton's legacy lives on as league farewells an original Immortal

Like so many great ideas that came out of the 1980s, the Immortals concept that elevated Bob Fulton, John Raper, Clive Churchill and Reg Gasnier into a stratosphere all their own, was the product of a long and lively conversation over an equally long and lively lunch.

As we close in on the 40th anniversary of that momentous day in July, 1981, when 'Bozo', 'Chook', 'The Little Master' and 'Puff the Magic Dragon' donned their Kangaroos jerseys and strode to the middle of the Sydney Cricket Ground for a photo shoot for the ages, it's timely to reflect on the humble beginnings of the Immortals.

Setting out simply to honour four great rugby league players, Rugby League Week's managing editor of the time, Ian Heads, could scarcely have envisaged that 40 years later the game's most exclusive club would have grown to 13 members and the Immortals would come to signify everything good about our game.

In the week that we farewell a third member of the original Fab Four, Bob Fulton, a trip down memory lane reveals that his great mate Peter 'Zorba' Peters, who was then NSW editor of RLW, was front and centre when the Immortals sprung to life.

The original Immortals at the SCG in 1981.
The original Immortals at the SCG in 1981. ©Rugby League Week

"Somewhere along the track of the meeting the 'Immortals' concept was born. My uncertain memory is that it was 'Zorba' who may first uttered the word... Maybe it was inspiration beamed down by Dally Messenger, who had, after all, grown up just a suburb away," Heads recalled in 2012 in a special Immortals tribute magazine released to coincide with Andrew Johns' induction.

"The word 'Immortal' (with its various meanings, including everlasting fame and unending existence) was seized upon, unanimously agreed to and locked in.

"The judges for the job at hand had to be the best there were – and I duly went in turn to Tom Goodman, the greatly respected sporting scribe, Frank Hyde, champion player and doyen of commentators, and to the 'old fox' of coaches, Harry Bath. All agreed without hesitation to tackle the challenge."

And so it was in 2012, when Fulton and fellow Immortals Raper, Graeme Langlands and Wally Lewis accepted the challenge to be part of the brains trust assembled by Rugby League Week to choose the eighth Immortal.

As the magazine's editor at the time I was in the room that day as some of the game's greatest minds weighed up the merits of an array of champions including Norm Provan, Mal Meninga, Brett Kenny, Brad Fittler, Steve Rogers, Ron Coote, Allan Langer and Johns.

Of all the opinions that flew across the table that day it was those of Fulton and supercoach Wayne Bennett that seemed to carry the most weight and be delivered with the most authority.

When 'Bozo' or 'Benny' went in to bat for one of the candidates the room fell silent, and everyone present gained an appreciation of why these two men are so revered by all those who played alongside them or were coached by them.

74. Bob Fulton - Hall of Fame

In the end it was 'Joey' Johns who got the verdict and fittingly both Provan and Meninga have since been honoured with Immortal status when the NRL took over the concept in 2018.

Dally Messenger, Dave Brown and Frank Burge also joined the exclusive group on the same night as players from pre-World War I were considered for the first time.

Sadly, the club lost another of its originals last Sunday when cancer claimed Fulton's life, leaving the indomitable Raper to carry on the legacy alongside his fellow magic Dragon Provan, Queensland icons Lewis and Meninga, and Newcastle's favourite son Johns. 

Like every team Fulton was part of as a player and coach, the Immortals will be poorer for his absence, but his legendary deeds will live on forever through old mates, old footage and a grand old tradition started 40 years ago to honour our champions.

And while there will never be another 'Bozo', there will be another Immortal, and another opportunity to pay homage to the men who carry the tag 'legend' as if it was invented just for them.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.