What Johnny Raper thought of today's NRL

4 months ago 96
PR Distribution

* Johnny Raper spoke to Wide World of Sports in 2017, for the rugby league Immortal's final in-depth interview. This was the article that was published at the time, and has been republished following the St George icon's death.

John Raper MBE is pushing 80, now walks with a cane and his memory is slowly starting to desert him.

But as he shuffled across the ground where he was The King of Rugby League half a century ago - Kogarah Oval - the itch returned.

LIVE UPDATES: Scotty James to kick-start Olympic gold-medal hunt

READ MORE: Tributes flow for Immortal, dead at 82

READ MORE: England axe James Anderson and Stuart Broad

St George Dragons legend Johnny Raper. (Getty)

"Geez, I'd love to be playing the way they play this game today," says the man acclaimed as the greatest forward of all time.

"Just look at this grass, for starters.

"It's like a carpet. When we played, it was like running on concrete.

"There was a cricket pitch in the middle of the ground and I lost so much skin there over the years. I had gravel rash my entire career and for years after.

"We would have a bath after the game and use a scrubbing brush to get all the bits of rock out of our knees. And if you landed head first, which you often did, it was brutal.

"And today, they train fulltime, they know all about nutrition and rehab and are more professional.

"I'd often play after a night on the drink - and play okay.

"But I know I would have been so much better in this era. I would have been a good boy and not given my wife hell."

Rugby league Immortal Johnny Raper has died at the age of 82. (Fairfax Media)

Both Raper and wife Carol chuckle at the memories.

"Sometimes I wouldn't see him for a few days," Carol says.

"But I always knew he was safe and okay… he was with his boys and they looked after him."

Raper insists it was all business, however.

"Back then we all had real jobs and trained two nights a week," he explains.

"After training, it was compulsory to go to the pub after training and some of those sessions did go on for a long time.

"We were talking tactics," he laughed.

"There were no mobile phones so I couldn't ring and say 'I'll be late home tonight, love'.

"And there were no microwave ovens. So Carol did her best to keep my dinner warm… even though some nights I never got around to eating it."

Raper was the key figure in the Dragons team that won 11 straight premiership in the 1950s and '60s and a lovable rogue who often enjoyed himself off the field.

In the modern game, he'd probably find himself before the NRL Integrity Unit on a weekly basis but 50 years ago, his antics were just seen as good, harmless fun.

Rugby league Immortal Johnny Raper was one of the best players in a great Dragons side. (Fairfax Media)

"I feel sorry for guys these days," Raper says.

"They can't let their hair down and have fun. Mobile phone cameras and social media follow their every move.

"Thank God they weren't around when we were playing (laughs)."

Raper has firm views on one of league's hottest topics - who should be the game's next Immortal.

"It has to be Norm Provan," he says.

"He was our skipper and he stood head and shoulders above the field.

"He kept us going and was the driving force behind those 11 premierships.

"And if any of us mucked up, he got us to toe the line quick smart.

"There are some great players these days but none of them achieved what he did.

"He really should have been the first Immortal - that's how we all feel about him. We idolised him."

St George captain-coach Norm Provan was heroic during the Dragons' 1962 NSWRL grand final triumph over Western Suburbs Magpies. (Fairfax)

Carol explains that all these years later, the Dragons, who set records that will never be broken, still treat Provan with a special reverance.

"When they get together, Norm is still the captain - they all look up to him," Carol says.

"He is a great man who has so much respect from his peers - even now, all this time later."

Raper is humbled that even in his golden years, his marvellous deeds on the football field have not been forgotten.

"I went to NSW State of Origin training last year and guys like Blake Ferguson, Boyd Cordner and Dave Klemmer saw me and said 'wow… that's John Raper... can we meet him?'

"That really humbled me and being recognised by old Saints fans on the street still gives me a thrill.

"I loved the fans and they loved me. There was no wall between the players and the public the way there often is now.

"I never knocked back an autograph in my life and always looked after the fans - they are the ones who make the game, after all."

Raper has seen thousands of players come and go but has no doubt who was the best of them all - his Dragons and Immortals team-mate Reg Gasnier.

Reg Gasnier (Getty)

"He was the greatest ever - by far," Raper says.

"I'd be supporting him with the ball but he didn't need me.

"He'd see a gap and was through it before anyone knew what happened.

"He would just say 'see you later' - and plant the ball between the posts.

"It was a sad day for us all when he died - there will never be another like him - he was a deadset freak.

"In the modern game, with the defence 10 yards back, he would have created havoc and been even better than he was way back then."

How does Raper want to be remembered?

"Just as a knockabout bloke who loved the game, loved Saints and loved the fans - and gave his best every week, even if he was a little worse for wear at the time," he says with a cheeky smile.

For a daily dose of the best of the breaking news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here!

Backstories and controversies behind all the Clive Churchill Medal winners of the NRL era

Read Entire Article