Norm Provan was anointed captain-coach of Heaven’s XIII – a team of late greats from the era he and his record-breaking St George team dominated - during a funeral for the game’s 13th Immortal on Monday.
Provan, who passed away on October 13 at the age of 89, was farewelled by family and friends on the Sunshine Coast, while Dragons players, officials and supporters gathered at St George Leagues Club for a memorial service.
Among them were family members of fellow Immortals John Raper and Reg Gasnier, their former St George and Test team-mate Johnny Riley and Dragons greats Craig Young, Rod Reddy, Steve Edge, Ben Hornby, Jason Nightingale and Ben Creagh.
In Queensland, Provan’s son Noel and daughter Suzanne paid tribute to the 10-time premiership winning forward, along with friend and former Rugby League Week editor Tony Durkin, who announced the Heaven’s XIII team chosen by renowned league historian David Middleton.
“Norm Provan was a thorough gentleman and a gentle giant. He oozed humility,” Durkin said.
“Norm was one of those rare people who could walk into a room and everyone would notice him – not because he was six-foot-seven inches [tall], but because he had this great aura – and he always seemed to find time to have a chat with anyone in that room who wanted to talk to him.
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“While he has left us, he has joined an elite group of departed players of his era. Let’s call them Heaven’s XIII.
“A lot of young people probably don’t know all of those players but let me tell you not only would they be beating everyone else up in heaven, but they would be having a good time.”
For league followers across the country, Norm became the code’s ultimate statesman - universally loved and respectedFormer Saints captain Craig Young
The team was selected from players Provan played with or against during his 256-match career from 1951 to 1965 and included four Immortals – Gasnier, Clive Churchill, Graeme Langlands and Provan.
The quartet were also members of the 2008 Team of the Century, which included former Western Suburbs prop Noel Kelly, while another six players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Among them is former Western Suburbs captain Arthur Summons, whose iconic embrace with Provan after the 1963 grand final lives on forever with the NRL Telstra Premiership trophy.
Each member of the Heaven XIII represented Australia and seven of them were involved in St George’s 11 consecutive premiership triumphs – a feat unlikely to be matched in world sport.
Provan’s 10 winning grand final appearances is also a record and he was captain-coach in the last four before embarking on a successful coaching career with St George, Parramatta and Cronulla.
“With a career winning record of 76.9% as a player and a phenomenal 80.8% as a coach, I think we will appoint Norm as the captain-coach of Heaven’s XIII,” Durkin said.
Since the end of St George’s golden era in 1966, just three players have captained the Dragons to premierships - Edge (1977), Young (1979) and Hornby (2010) – and all spoke of Provan’s legacy to the club and the game.
“For league followers across the country, he became the code’s ultimate statesman - universally loved and respected, and loudly cheered whenever he joined Arthur Summons to present the premiership trophy on grand final day,” said Young, whose son Dean was part of the team that downed the Roosters in the 2010 grand final.
Hornby, who surpassed Provan’s record for the most games in the Red V, recalled that moment and also receiving the Provan-Summons Trophy from him as the captain of the 2010 premiership-winning team.
“Everyone knows the stature that Norm is held in rugby league, not just at the Dragons, so to be able to go past him was a huge honour,” Hornby said.
“He came down to the captain’s run the day before I broke the record and congratulated me. He pretty much just said that it was great that the record was going to be broken by a local junior who had played their whole career at the club.
The moment the trophy was born: Provan-Summons trophy embrace
“We always reflect on the history of the club. All those premierships and all those teams that came before us we knew about and respected, so we were just trying to play our little part in the legacy of the club.”
Reddy, who played in St George’s 1977 and 1979 premiership winning teams, said Provan was universally admired throughout the game and a player he had always looked up to.
“I have never heard anyone say a bad word about Norm. He is held in the highest esteem,” Reddy said. “One of the first things I ever remember when walking into this club in 1972 was looking up on the wall and seeing Norm’s photo. He was larger than life.
“I wore his jersey on occasions and when you look back on it now it was a bit of a privilege. I came in the aftermath of Norm and played with players like Graeme Langlands and Billy Smith who were probably a little bit wilder than Norm, so Norm did very well to keep those guys in check in his day.
“They kept the attitude to win and to train hard. They were the two things I learned when I first came to St George. Nothing beats winning and no-one has won as many grand finals as Norm.”