John Nicholls was one of if not the greatest ruckmen of all time simply because he knew how to use his abilities and physique - which in and of themselves were far from extraordinary - to the best possible effect. Not blessed with the supreme all round skills of a Graham Farmer, or the mountainous height of a Len Thompson, nor yet the fearsome aggressiveness of a Jack Dyer, Nicholls was nevertheless consistently able to outmanoeuvre opposing ruckmen of all physical types and attributes. Moreover, he had an uncanny and arguably unequalled knack of extracting the maximum advantage from almost any on field situation, no matter how ostensibly inimical.
None of the above should be taken as implying that John Nicholls was a player devoid of skill, however. Without wishing to become embroiled in a philosophical consideration of the nature of skill it is nevertheless worth pointing out for example that, unlike Farmer, say, Nicholls was very much a two-sided player. Furthermore, his kicking was accurate and penetrative, and he handled the ball cleanly. Whilst not possessed of blinding pace his astute judgement repeatedly enabled him to make position ahead of speedier opponents. And while not given to indiscriminate violence his "piercing blue eyes gave the most frightening stare in football".
All of which has the effect of intensifying the irony surrounding Nicholls' method of entry to League football, for it was actually John's brother Don - a centreman or defender - who was the original target of Carlton's recruitment team. It was only after the boys' father intervened that it was agreed to let both brothers try out with the Blues.
Don Nicholls - no mean player himself - lasted six seasons and played 77 games with Carlton. By the time his 'baby brother' retired in 1974 after eighteen seasons at Princes Park he had enjoyed arguably the most illustrious career of any Carlton champion. Just about the only honour to elude him was the Brownlow Medal (although he was runner-up in 1966). A member of more VFL interstate teams (31) than any other player, 'Big Nick' gained All Australian selection after both the 1966 Hobart and 1969 Adelaide carnivals, being selected as captain on the latter occasion. On no fewer than five occasions - a club record - he was chosen as Carlton's club champion. As Blues skipper he held the premiership cup aloft after the grand finals of 1968, 1970 and 1972, having coached the team to the flag in the last named season. With 328 club games by the time of his retirement Nicholls established another Carlton record (later broken by Bruce Doull).
In 1977, Nicholls was appointed coach of Glenelg, and managed to get the Tigers into the grand final in his first season; however, Port Adelaide proved just that bit too strong, and edged home by seven points. When the side dropped to fourth place the following season, Nicholls' left, resurfacing three years later as coach of VFA 1st division side Coburg whom he steered to sixth place in his sole season in charge.
When Carlton selected its official 'Team of the Century', John Nicholls was the presumably almost inevitable choice to lead the first ruck.