It is a pity the saturation coverage the forced retirement of Andrew Johns has received in New South Wales and Queensland has been sullied by claims that “he is widely acknowledged to be the greatest player in rugby league history”.
The Australian made that claim in its page one coverage today, and it is complete nonsense. Even if, in time, he comes to be regarded as the “best ever” player — and that is highly unlikely — it is most assuredly not as widely acknowledged today as The Australian claims.
In recent years, we have fallen into the bad habit of too easily tagging the sports stars of our era as the best ever. It is the hyperbolic rubbish of a PR-driven age. It was said when Ian Thorpe retired six months ago, and already an exceptional young American, Michael Phelps, has put that claim to the sword.
I am no expert, but I have watched a lot of rugby league in my lifetime, and I’m happy to go along with Roy Masters’ more measured piece in The Sydney Morning Herald that Johns was “the best player of his generation” and a “sui generis” of the code — one of a kind. His record is outstanding, and the best measure of it in my view is to be found in the number of matches in his 14-year career in which he alone was the difference between winning and losing, whether it has been for the Newcastle Knights, the NSW Blues or the Kangaroos.
Not many players can lay claim in their careers to making that sort of difference at all levels of their sport — and doing so frequently. Andrew Johns can unquestionably do so. But the aspect of his career that particularly impressed me was that he was always very hard on himself. You could tell when he was playing below his best, or even when he missed a tackle, or dropped a pass — he was openly furious with himself.
And so it was to the very end. Phil Gould has today revealed a series of recent text messages from Andrew Johns. The most telling was one sent two hours after the Knights were hammered 48-18 by the lowly Canberra Raiders, a game in which Johns was well below par. He asked Gould the question: “Am I embarrassing myself?”
In an era of highly paid — and often over-paid — sportspeople it is refreshing that the highest-paid player in rugby league asked that question, and not only of his former Blues coach, Gould. In time he will join the game’s seven immortals. And that is an honour he will surely deserve.