Johnny Raper was one of rugby league’s great characters and to some the sport’s greatest player.
He died aged 82 after a long battle with illness.
A rugby league Immortal for his heroics with Newtown, St George, New South Wales and Australia, Raper was an icon of the sport for over half a century and will remain so as long as the game is played.
Born in Revesby in 1939, Raper played his junior football with Camperdown before he was graded with Newtown in 1957.
After two seasons with the Bluebags as a five-eighth, Raper transferred to St George for 1959. The Dragons had already won three straight premierships when he arrived, but Raper fit in immediately among their galaxy of stars.
In the space of one magical year, Raper made his interstate debut for New South Wales, his Test debut for Australia and played a major part in the Dragons’ unbeaten premiership campaign.
From there, the glories came thick and fast.
Skilful and quick enough to play in the centres or at five-eighth, Raper’s true home was at lock forward, where he matched his attacking brilliance with a reputation as a rugged defender, with a particular gift for cover tackles.
After his breakout 1959 season there was no glory that eluded Raper over the rest of his glittering career.
He was part of each St George premiership from 1959 to 1966, and along with fellow Immortals Reg Gasnier, Norm Provan and Graeme Langlands, he helped continue the greatest club dynasty Australian rugby league has ever known or will ever know.
Raper was an automatic selection for New South Wales, pulling on the sky blue jersey on 31 occasions and was often at his best in the representative arena, especially for Australia.
In 39 Test matches (and 35 tour games) for his country, Raper’s play was nothing short of remarkable.
Veteran broadcaster Frank Hyde rates Raper’s performance in the infamous “Swinton Massacre”, a 50-12 victory over Great Britain in the second game of the 1963-64 Ashes series that secured an Australian victory on British soil for the first time in 50 years, as the greatest 80 minutes a footballer had ever played.
“When Johnny Raper was born, they not only destroyed the mould, they pulped it. I rate him the finest footballer I have seen,” Hyde said.
Raper toured Britain and France with the Kangaroos three times and captained Australia to victory in the 1968 World Cup final over the French.
He battled on for St George until 1969, before playing five years in the Newcastle competition with Wests Newcastle and Kurri Kurri before hanging up the boots in 1974.
He later coached Cronulla and Newtown and was named one of Rugby League Week’s inaugural Immortals in 1981 alongside Gasnier, Clive Churchill and Bob Fulton.
Raper embraced life off the field with the same exuberance he took into his play.
Renowned for his love of a good time, there are many reports of Raper staying out all night, going for a long road run in the morning and winning man of the match at the SCG that afternoon.
He was infamously accused of walking through the streets of Ilkley in England wearing a bowler hat and nothing else during the 1967-68 Kangaroo Tour – it was a case of mistaken identity, but Raper took it in stride, with the bowler hat becoming his trademark.
Raper’s list of accolades is almost too long to recount but there can be no doubt of his greatness.
In more recent times, Raper was named in the New South Wales and Australian teams of the century and was an inaugural inductee in the Australian rugby league hall of fame.
There was nothing in this sport he did not achieve, and few who saw him had any doubts they were watching not just one of the great players of his time, but one of the great players in the history of rugby league.