A Brief and Thoughtful Essay on Andrew Johns and Recreational Drugs

Filed in Other by on December 5, 2010

It will be a tough day to forget, April 10 in this Year of Our Lord 2007. It was the day we all got the Dear John letter that we knew was inevitable but we felt was a lifetime away. Word was sent down the line that Andrew Johns had played his last game of rugby league, its greatest exponent forced into a premature retirement by a dicky neck that could leave him in a wheelchair. The kid with all the skills and the heart of a jaded lioness, forever enthusiastic and forever brilliant, has strapped on a pair of boots for the last time and sooner or later, we are all going to have to deal with it in some manner, no matter how perverted.

Andrew Johns was the gas and it was a thrill to watch him play. It is rare that you can get such a kick so cheap and so often. Time stood still for Andrew Johns, that was for sure and certain.

There will be plenty written about the man they called Joey in the coming days and weeks and months. It will be reflective and praise worthy and rose tinted and full of hyperbole. Words will be written about being an all time great, perhaps the greatest, an immortal of the fine game of rugby league. Terms like loyal and brilliant and revolutionary and courageous and hero will be littered throughout screeds that adorn his name. And all these words and all that praise will be completely justified.

And even then, most won’t do him justice. It would take a real Grantland Rice and perhaps even an F. Scott Fitzgerald to get the right combination of words to fully capture the beauty and heavenly brilliance that Andrew Johns played rugby league with on paper. Or computer screen at any rate.

But, Dear Reader, I am obliged to at least try. As a lover of rugby league and a man who has wordsmith written on his tax return, I have no choice but to offer up something in the way of comment on Andrew Johns, his greatness and his legacy.

There is plenty that Andrew Johns has done right on a football field over his 14 year first grade career. Plenty that he has done well above right. The images of him blinding a defence, ball held out to provide options, with a jinking run still remain bright and focused. He could set his backline alight with a pass of sublime beauty and he could inspire his defence with a bone rattling hit and his unparalleled workrate for a man his size. He had the brilliance to make even his most mediocre teammates look good (bar, of course, Greg Smith but that is a whole other tale in itself) and could penetrate the most stonewall and brutal of defences. His enthusiasm was infectious, as was his competitive drive and will to win. He changed the way rugby league is played, rewriting the role of the halfback and proving the effectiveness of innovative and constructive kicking. He was as gifted at the placekick as Halligan and he could lead from the front like Ghengis Khan. He was a consummate professional of the highest order, a footballer for anytime, an innovator. And in the end, that is the greatest compliment that can be paid to Andrew Johns. He was a professional. And he was the best.

The discussion in most circles isn’t if Andrew Johns should be considered an immortal or where in the mix of great players he sits but when he should become an immortal and if he is the greatest player to grace a rugby league field. And there are plenty of legitimate arguments to suggest he is the greatest ever. Few players have had his combination of brilliance, innovation and longevity and it is doubtful few ever will.

But it is all just a memory now. The banshee has howled the name Andrew Johns and we are all the worse off for it. It is more than a little sad and one cannot help but cop this blow a lot harder than most. Andrew Johns was more than even a once-in-a-generation player, he was possibly a once-in-a-lifer and to farewell one of those is tough. Not only have we lost an icon, there is a very real chance none of us will ever reach the highs we did on Andrew Johns’ back again. His retirement, like that of Alan Border and Mal Meninga and Robert Menzies and Steve Waugh and others who can be classified by a period, marks a distinct point in the lives of everybody who loves rugby league. And today, we all feel older, our lives a long way from the point of last marking. The end of an era, they say.

But enough of the gush and the moist-eyed reflection of days gone by…

The future of rugby league, in significant part due to Andrew Johns, has a bright future. He lived and breathed and improved and enjoyed rugby league and the game was and is better off because of him. His legacy of professionalism and innovation will live on in the game. He attracted people to the game and reinforced their belief in the code when their support wavered.

But that same positive legacy won’t hold true in the fine rugby league town of Newcastle. It is there that the Johns retirement will have its most tangible effect. Novocastrians love their league down to their hard white bones and it is going to hurt worse than any ball stomping the townsfolk have suffered before. The Newcastle Knights are immeasurably better off for having Johns play but his leaving was always going to be painful. No matter when and no matter how that ending came. Like Hansel and Gretel wouldn’t work with baked beans, Newcastle rugby league will struggle without Andrew Johns. He meant that much to the team, that much to the town. No matter how many Danny Buderus’ and Steve Simpson’s the Knights have, there is a certainty of a post-Johns letdown. Success looks a fair way away from Marathon Stadium today.

Goddamit. The heaviness of this whole scene doesn’t look like lifting soon and even for a lead-balled Bulldog like me, the sense of sadness will remain for a while yet. There is a void and it is going to take a hell of a heavy dose of the right tonic to fill it.

And the clock keeps ticking, a constant reminder of the continuum we tread and that nothing lasts forever…

Nothing but legend and the memories of a champion.

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