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Who's that?

by Michael Desmond, 1 September 2009

Michael Desmond discusses the iconic picture of two Rugby League players which became known as 'The Gladiators'.

The Gladiators (Norm Provan and Arthur Summons), 1963 (printed 1970s) John O'Gready
The Gladiators (Norm Provan and Arthur Summons), 1963 (printed 1970s) John O'Gready

It was hard to tell who was in the black and white photograph below the headline ‘Who’s that?’ in the Sun Herald for 25 August 1963.

Two figures, walking arm in arm, could be discerned but little else. Clearly one was very tall, the other short. Any further differentiation was problematic as both men were covered in a dark blanket of mud that blurred their features and obscured details of their clothing.

Beneath the muddy coating were the captains of the two Rugby League teams that had just fought out the 1963 Grand Final, Norm Provan of the victorious St George team on the left and Arthur Summons of Western Suburbs beside him. It was not immediately apparent who had won the hard fought game; such was the appearance of friendship between the two players captured in that magic post-game moment by staff photographer John O’Gready (1937-1999). The image caught the imagination of the public who read into it the mateship and sportsmanship that could exist between two hardened but still chivalrous warriors. The idea of a level playing field also appealed to readers who saw mutual respect between equals – the big man and the small – in Australian sport and by extension, in Australian society. O’Gready’s photograph became immensely popular and a symbol of the game, eventually becoming known as ‘The Gladiators’.

With their caked mud patina, these heroic gladiators seemed already cast in metal. So when the cigarette company Winfield sponsored the Grand Final, it seemed an easy step to create an award, The Winfield Cup, inspired by the photograph of the two players. The Winfield Cup (actually a trophy, not a cup) was a sculptural version of the photograph designed by New Zealand-born sculptor Alan Ingham (1920 – 1994) and awarded from 1982 to 1994, when legislation against tobacco advertising ended the naming rights of the company. The present day award, the National Rugby League Premiership Trophy incorporates the same design that appears in the photograph that immortalised Provan and Summons.

The captain of St George, Norm Provan (born 1932), was an exceptional player. He had joined St George in 1950 and played a record 284 games for the club between 1951 and 1965 when he retired. Provan played in eleven Grand Finals, ten of these victories in the team’s remarkable run of premierships including four of them as Captain and coach. It’s no wonder that he was selected in 2004 for the Rugby League Hall of Fame and named, in 2008, as one of Australia’s 100 Greatest Players.

Like Provan, fellow captain Arthur Summons (born 1935) was honored by inclusion into the list of Australia’s 100 Greatest Players. He played both rugby union and league, playing for the Gordon Rugby Union Club during the fifties. In 1956 he was selected for the Wallabies and eventually played in ten tests. He was equally prominent as a league player, signing on with Western Suburbs in 1960 and meeting St George in the Grand Final (without success) in the next three seasons. Summons represented Australia internationally, as captain in 1963 when the gallant portrait of the mud spattered gladiators was taken.

John O’Gready’s photograph was named British Sports Picture of the Year in 1963 and since then has assumed the status of an Australian sports icon. The irony was that at the very time O’Gready was snapping the image of a battletested comradeship for posterity, Summons was actually complaining bitterly about the unjust refereeing and was himself snapping that the Saints ‘were lucky to win’.

3 portraits

1National Rugby League Telstra Premiership Trophy. 2Australian and New South Wales Rugby League Winfield Cup.
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