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John Raper.

The name alone conjures memories of scything cover tackles, a plethora of premierships, a bygone era when the game was played for love not money, and an iconic image of four legends standing proud at the SCG after being crowned rugby league's original Immortals in 1981.

The man known affectionately as 'Chook' died on Wednesday at the age of 82 after a battle with dementia, just four months after his great friend and fellow Dragons legend Norm Provan passed away and nine months after Bob 'Bozo' Fulton succumbed to cancer.

Fulton and Raper, along with the 'Little Master' Clive Churchill and 'Puff The Magic Dragon' Reg Gasnier, were rugby league's first Immortals, chosen by an esteemed panel of judges which included respected sports writer Tom Goodman, coaching guru Harry Bath and the doyen of commentators Frank Hyde.

Many thousands of words have been penned about Raper down the years but few said it better than Hyde himself in 1995: ''When Johnny Raper was born, they not only destroyed the mould, they pulped it. I rate him the finest footballer I have seen.''

John Raper Immortals package

And few would argue, especially today, as we reflect on the life and times of a man who played hard on and off the field, loved life, loved his family, and loved a lap of honour at the SCG so much that he took it eight years in a row with the Red V from 1959 to 1966.

After starting his career with the Newtown Jets in 1957-58, Raper headed for Kogarah and immediately set about winning premierships.

He played centre in the Dragons' 20-0 shutout of Manly in the 1959 decider before making the lock position his own and carving out one of the game's most celebrated careers alongside Provan, Gasnier, Johnny King, Ian Walsh and another fellow Immortal in Graeme Langlands.

The original Immortals Churchill, Fulton, Raper and Gasnier at the SCG in 1981.
The original Immortals Churchill, Fulton, Raper and Gasnier at the SCG in 1981. ©Rugby League Week

It was 1999 when Langlands was added to rugby league's most prestigious club along with 'The King' Wally Lewis.

It seemed only fitting that the ceremony to induct the fifth and sixth Immortals was held at St George Leagues Club, given that Red V royalty made up half the 'team' at that stage.

Come 2003 and Arthur Beetson would join the club, followed by Andrew Johns in 2012 and then Mal Meninga, Frank Burge, Dally Messenger, Dave Brown and Provan in 2018.

Fiercely loyal to the men who had shared the Saints glory days with him, Raper had pushed hard for Provan to be named an Immortal long before 2018, rising to his feet to speak passionately about his former skipper when judges met to discuss the 2012 induction.

It was my privilege as editor in chief of Rugby League Week at the time to be part of that judging process, alongside Raper, Fulton, Langlands, Wayne Bennett, Ian Heads, Norman Tasker, Ray Warren, David Middleton and other league luminaries.

In the end it was Johns who got the nod, but fittingly Provan's time would come six years later as the team grew from eight to 13 on a magnificent night for the game, honouring five more of our finest in a glittering ceremony at the SCG.

Some four decades after Chook had stood shoulder to shoulder with Bozo, Clive and Reg for that magical photo, the game's spiritual home again played host to the Immortals: some there in person, others looking down from on high and no doubt raising a toast to their old mates.

John Raper captained Australia to victory in the third Test in 1967 as the Ashes were retained.
John Raper captained Australia to victory in the third Test in 1967 as the Ashes were retained. ©Rugby League Week

Those unbreakable bonds are what makes our game so special. They inspire our champions to lift themselves from the dust when their bodies scream 'no more'. To get back into the defensive line lest they leave a hole for a mate to fill.

Pride in performance, pride in the jersey. It's what drove Raper through 180 games for the Dragons, 27 interstate appearances for NSW against Queensland and 39 Tests in the green and gold.

Just as 'Chook' had a mortgage on the No.8 jersey at every level he played in the 50s and 60s, so too in 2008 when the Team of the Century was named.

Faced with the seemingly impossible task of choosing just 17 players when at least five times that many could mount a case, a panel of historians, journalists, coaches and former internationals had little to debate when it came to picking a lock forward.

"Certainly, when the Team of the Century was chosen, Raper had a lock on the lock position, so to speak. I recall it as the only position of the 13-man team where there were no alternate candidates," wrote Roy Masters for in 2018. "Not even the Queensland judges challenged his nomination."

One of the game's most respected journalists, Masters also coached St George for six years between 1982-87, taking them to a grand final in 1985 with the redoubtable Craig Young as his skipper.

Only Provan with 257 played more games for St George than Young, who is still providing great service to the club in his role as Dragons chairman.

John Raper at the SCG in 2008 with fellow Team of the Century members Andrew Johns and Wally Lewis.
John Raper at the SCG in 2008 with fellow Team of the Century members Andrew Johns and Wally Lewis. ©Rugby League Week

It seems fitting then that the last word goes to Young on a day when the Red V mourns another of its icons.

"Johnny Raper was an inspiration to his teammates and the entire St George organisation and is one of the key reasons why the famous Red V holds such esteem to this very day," said Young.

"Johnny was a larger than life character on and off the field who loved the game dearly. He will be sadly missed and never forgotten."

Amen to that.

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