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NRL 2021: Norm Provan, the story of the iconic photo of the “Gladiators”

By on October 15, 2021 0

“Who is it?”

It was the title above the rugby league’s most iconic image when it was first published in the Sun Herald the day after the 1963 SCG Grand Final.

It sounds remarkable now, but the ‘Gladiators’ photo of victorious St George captain Norm Provan consoling his Western Suburbs counterpart Arthur Summons was on page 3 – not front page – the day after the controversial Dragons triumph. 8-3.

The 13th Immortal in the game passed away on Wednesday, just over a year after Summons, but the memory of the pair lives on through the Provan-Summons Trophy awarded to the winners of the NRL Premier Division.

In a new book, “The spirit of red V: Vol I”, to commemorate the centenary of St George’s arrival as Prime Minister in 1921, renowned rugby league historian Geoff Armstrong wrote about Provan’s impact on the club and the game.

The following excerpts detail Provan’s appointment as captain-coach in 1962, the story behind the famous “Gladiators” photo and his last game in the 1965 grand final, when he led the Dragons to a 10th. back-to-back prime minister before a record SCG crowd.

‘Born to lead’

Norm Provan was a coach of a different style from that of Ken Kearney.

As one of the greatest players of his generation and the only man left in Kogarah to have played the previous six Grand Finals, he commanded great respect.

He and Johnny Raper were considered the best coaches in the club; it wasn’t his way of asking someone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

The day the Provan brothers fought for a post of prime minister

Raper called Provan “the greatest rugby union player I’ve played with or against”.

League writer Ian Heads wrote: “Provan was born to lead. His honesty, his ambition, his will to win, his courage, his dignity, his modesty, his pride in his achievements, his loyalty and his fair play qualified him perfectly for the task ”.

Ray Norman, once a tryout and one of the big boys in the rugby league, said: “There are few players who have been truly exceptional in this great game. Norm Provan, with his long strides and his intelligent and powerful football, is one of the best strikers we have had ”.

As a leader in the field, he looked like Frank Burge, a colossus.

The sight of Provan emerging from the boxes under the stands of the Suburban Oval or SCG Members’ Pavilion, his team of champions behind him, their white jerseys with a resplendent red V, strands of steel slamming on the concrete, provided a lasting memory for league fans in the 1960s.

At home, they were greeted with rousing cheers; elsewhere, opposition supporters greeted them with a cocktail of boos and derision. IN 1965, journalist Christopher Day called them “the machine loved and idolized, the machine hated and ridiculed”.

The moment the trophy was born: kissing the Provan-Summons trophy

“The Gladiators”

Immediately after full time, Provan and Summons reunited on the SCG mud heap and Summons apparently said words to the effect, “You were lucky to get away with it, ‘Sticks’. You shouldn’t have won it ”.

A photographer working for the Sun-Herald, John O’Gready, overheard this brief conversation as he took a photo of the Two Great Warriors in what appeared to be a friendly embrace. As he did so, a ray of sunlight broke through the twilight.

Provan told Norm Tasker that he didn’t remember Summons “going crook” about the referee when they got together after the game. He was surprised his rival captain didn’t want to swap shirts.

“I thought we won fair and square,” said Provan. “I don’t remember feeling there was any doubt about it when we got off the ground.”

Hours later, at the Herald offices in town, O’Gready and image editor Graham Wilkinson examined the photographs taken by O’Gready at SCG.

In Wilkinson’s opinion, one of them stood out: Provan and Summons. Today, he is known simply, universally, as “The Gladiators”.

He would win international photography awards, be famous for bronze as the Winfield Cup and Premiership Trophy for the National Rugby League, and help make his two protagonists among the best-known players of their time.

However, on Sunday August 25, 1963, the day after the grand finale, he was not deemed worthy of making headlines.

Instead, the newspaper’s editor went with a photo to accompany the story of a Friday night train crash at Geurie, near Dubbo in western New South Wales, in which 20 people were injured. “The Gladiators” is on page three.

Ask most fans in the league today for the names of the footballers O’Gready captured so evocatively, and even though Provan and Summons are covered in mud, they’ll know the answer by knee-jerk reaction.

In August 1963, the title atop the now iconic Sun-Herald photo categorically asked, “Who is this?”

St George had won all three ranks, the club championship and the preseason competition. Balmain was premier in all three classes in 1915 and 1916, as were the Souths in 1925, but the club’s championship wasn’t officially awarded until 1930, so in a sense the Dragons had made an unprecedented sweep. .

The Saints Premier Team contained four future Immortals: Norm Provan, Reg Gasnier, John Raper, and Graeme Langlands.

Yet for all of the club’s accomplishments in this historic year, it looked like after the grand final that the squad could be in decline.

“I don’t think the Team of the Year has been as dominant as the ones in the past,” said [Wests five-eighth] Keith Holman.

The departure of Provan accentuated this belief.

“I hope he reconsiders his decision to retire,” said John Raper. “Without big ‘Sticks’ St George will be much closer to the pitch.”

“This will be the end of St George’s series of prime ministerial terms,” ​​said [Wests winger] Pierre Dimond. “Because we won’t have to wrestle with Provan anymore. “

But Provan had not finished. And neither did St George.

Remember the immortal Norm Provan

Record crowd farewell to Provan

The Sun produced posters – “Provan’s Last Game… Special Pictures” – which hung outside newsagents across town.

“They will be playing for the big guy more than ever,” said [legendary St George secretary] Frank Facer.

There would be no TV coverage of the Grand Final, either live or delayed, reflecting the thinking of NSW Rugby League officials, all of whom had been involved in the game for many years and firmly believed that TV would stifle the game. number of crowds.

This meant the Sydneysiders could watch the local rugby union Grand Final between Randwick and Northern Suburbs or the Essendon-St Kilda Victorian Football League Grand Final from Melbourne live at home, but not the biggest match in the year in their football code # 1.

Channel 7 sporting director Rex Mossop interviewed the two coaches, Provan and Bernie Purcell of South Sydney the day before the game at 10 p.m. after the Friday night movie.

While this was happening, at SCG, hundreds of fans were setting up camp for the night, to ensure they were among the first to enter the ground when the doors opened at 11am. The Saints were in the three years as they had been in 1958, 1963 and 1964.

The main roads on the ground were bumper to bumper and the parking lots were full by 11:30 am. Players say they have to park for miles and then rush through the crowd to get there on time.

Brian Clay carried his young son on his shoulders through Moore Park. When Bob McCarthy rushed into the Souths locker room with a few minutes to spare, he breathlessly told Purcell he had already warmed up.

“I think there must have been 200,000 there, not 80,000,” Billy Smith said.

Everyone agreed that the official crowd figure [78,056] underestimated true attendance.

Then Provan will say of the match itself: “It went a bit like I thought. Our experience, our defense and our teamwork were sufficiently superior that day ”.

He had decided to keep the game tight, confident that the Dragons’ forwards got the better of their younger opponents.

Full-time, fans rushed to the pitch to celebrate Saints’ tenth consecutive term.

‘Spirit of the Red V: Volume I’, by Geoff Armstrong, is available now.

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