Never before. Never again.
That is what they said about that famous St George team of the 1950s and 1960s that won 11 straight premierships during an era of such domination it was unprecedented in world sport and has been untouched since.
The same could be said of Norm Provan, their beloved leader who played in 10 of those deciders and who was revered across the game for not only his toughness and success but also his humility and grace. A physical giant who stood1.93m in an age when that towered above the norm, Provan had unwavering self-belief, a devotion to physical fitness and a grounding in reality that ensured he was widely admired during his time but became an esteemed treasure in retirement.
His type was never seen before. It will never be seen again.
In 2018, Provan was named an Immortal, the highest individual honour one can receive in rugby league. In truth, though, Provan had already long been immortalised through the iconic The Gladiators photo – arguably the most enduring image in Australian sport – with his arm wrapped around diminutive Western Suburbs captain Arthur Summons following the 1963 grand final, Provan’s shirt off, both players caked in mud. The image captured all the was great about the game – its egalitarian nature, its toughness, camaraderie and humility. Such was its perfection it became the premiership trophy in 1982 and has been part of it every year since and will be for as long as the game is played in these parts.
It was not just the image. It was and is Provan himself, an aspiration that rugby league has long held, a valhalla the game believes it once was and can be again. He was an idealised version of the game’s ultimate player – strong and tough, skilled and composed, dedicated and selfless. Except that this idealised version of the man did exist. He did play, and he was truly phenomenal.
There have been many credited with being the driving force behind that remarkable St George team of the 1950s and 60s. There was Frank Facer, the indomitable secretary who was the architect of it all. There was Ken Kearney and Harry Bath, both returned from England, who brought back a professionalism and a focus on skills that revolutionised game preparation in Australia. There were the superstars who all received Immortal status early – Raper, Gasnier, Langlands – who all were among the greatest to ever play the game. But the impact of Norm Provan should never be underestimated. It is of little coincidence that the club rose to its greatest heights soon after his arrival.
Lanky and raw-boned and made of granite, Provan made his first-grade debut with St George in 1951 aged 18. He had such an impressive debut season that he was picked in Probables v Possibles Australian trial. He would play in his first grand final two years later and make his Test debut the year after but it was in 1956 and the decade that followed when he made his monumental impact.
Provan was part of an incredible 10 straight premierships, a feat no other Dragon at that time accomplished and a number that no other player has ever reached over the course of their career. He captain-coached the Dragons to the last four. Over that decade, per statistician Aaron Wallace, he lost just 23 games and never lost at St George’s home ground of Kogarah. In three of the grand finals he was St George’s best, winning retrospective Clive Churchill Medals for his showings.
The numbers are truly remarkable but it was his leadership that left the deepest mark. Provan rarely drank when the culture of the game demanded it. He was always happy to sacrifice a friendship for the good of the club. He took fitness training to levels not seen before. He was humble, too, known throughout the St George region just as much for his discount stores as he was for his rugby league heroics.
His death comes 100 years after the St George District Rugby League Football Club played its first game. It also comes 40 seasons after his likeness was first used for the most-sought-after trophy in the Australian game.
Rugby league lost a legend on Thursday. Provan was a true giant of the sport. His legacy will endure and his story will live on, his grand contribution never to be forgotten.