Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Minor Premiership Not Always Ticket to Title

The advent of mandatory grand finals in 1954 loosened the traditional stranglehold of minor premiers taking out the title, while the shift to five-team, and later eight-team, finals series further exacerbated the likelihood of the season’s most consistent team failing to hold up the trophy on grand final day.  Between the first season of the Sydney premiership in 1908 and 1953, the last year before the introduction of mandatory grand finals, just eight minor premiers failed to take out the title (note: seasons 1912-21 and 1925 operated under a ‘first-past-the-post’ system of the minor premiers being declared champions).

The fledgling mandatory grand final system immediately brought the minor premiers undone.  Newtown won consecutive minor premierships in 1954-55, but went down to South Sydney in the grand final in each year.  Despite topping the ladder in 1967, St. George’s record run of 11 consecutive premierships came to end after losing both finals matches to Souths and Canterbury – thus becoming the first minor premiers to fail to qualify for the grand final.

The introduction of a five-team finals series in 1973 provided even bigger hurdles for the minor premiers.  Between 1977 and 2010, just 15 of 35 minor premiers have gone on to win the grand final.  Easts finished the regular season in top spot in 1980-81 but faltered in their premiership bid in both seasons and missed the grand final in the latter year.  Consecutive minor premiers Cronulla (1988) and Souths (1989) also bowed out of the title race with successive finals defeats.  The Bulldogs suffered a straight-sets finals exit in 1993 and were thrashed by Canberra in the 1994 grand final after winning the minor premiership each year, while three-time minor premiers Manly (1995-97) garnered just one grand final win for their regular season dominance.

It got worse for minor premiers during the NRL era following the introduction of the controversial McIntryre finals system.  Since 1998, just five minor premiers have progressed to a grand final victory lap.  Cronulla (1999) and Parrmatta (2005) suffered preliminary final defeats after wrapping up minor premierships, while St. George Illawarra acquired an unwanted piece of history in 2009, losing consecutive finals matches to become the first minor premiers to be eliminated before the preliminary final stage.  Melbourne, who won three minor premierships (2006-08) that were later stripped due to the club’s well-documented salary cap breaches, collected just one grand final win during those seasons – mirroring Manly’s dominant side of a decade earlier – before crashing out at the preliminary final stage after claiming the minor premiership in 2011.  Incredibly, the Broncos have won the grand final in each of the seasons they have claimed a minor premiership – 1992, 1997 (Super League), 1998 and 2000 – accounting for four of the eight times the minor premiers have won the ensuing grand final since 1992.

From Millionaires to Fibros

The last two great eras in the history of the Western Suburbs Magpies club were built on two contrasting foundations.  The image and ethos of big-spending Wests’ star-studded ‘Millionaires’ side of the late-1950s and early-1960s was poles apart from the rough-and-tumble, working-class ‘Fibros’ team of the late-1970s and early-1980s which, ironically, had many of its best players poached by rival clubs.

After winning the 1952 premiership, the Magpies wallowed in the competition cellar for three years, collecting the wooden spoon in 1953 and 1955.  But the club embarked on an aggressive recruitment drive to climb the ladder again in 1956.  With abundant revenue from a newly-purchased leagues club, Wests lured all-time greats Kel O’Shea and Harry Wells from Queensland and Wollongong respectively, and fellow Test representatives Darcy Henry and Ian Johnstone from NSW country centres.  

The tactic paid immediate dividends: the Magpies returned to the finals in 1956 after beating Newtown in a playoff for fourth place, before claiming outright fourth spot in 1957.  Eliminated by Souths in each season, Wests finished second in the minor premiership in 1958 and hammered the mighty St. George Dragons in the major semi to advance to the grand final.  The Magpies were overwhelmed 20-9 in the decider as the Dragons claimed their third consecutive title, but the black-and-whites had asserted themselves as a premiership heavyweight.  Wests had acquired the services of former Test centre Rees Duncan and Dapto teenager Peter Dimond in 1958, with the bulldozing winger making his Test debut in his first year with the club. 

The Magpies finished second in the 1959-60 regular seasons, but were beaten in consecutive preliminary finals by Manly and Easts respectively, while the club’s big-spending ways continued unabated.  Criticised for inflating player payments and inciting bidding wars for players throughout the Sydney premiership and beyond, the Magpies nonetheless signed Test three-quarters Dick Poole and Ian Moir for the 1959 season.  Former Wallaby half Arthur Summons joined the club in 1960, while Test fullback Don Parish and Team of the Century hooker Noel Kelly followed suit in 1961. 

Wests claimed the fourth minor premiership in club history in 1961, but were beaten 9-4 by St. George in the major semi and swamped 22-0 by the dominant Dragons in the grand final.  After finishing third in 1962, the Magpies defeated Balmain and Parramatta to advance to another grand final against St. George, where they were narrowly beaten 9-6 in a tense decider.  But Wests came even closer to ending the Dragons’ run in 1963.  After beating St. George three times during the season, including a 10-8 victory in the major semi, Wests went down 8-3 in one of the most controversial grand finals of all time.  Rumours of referee Darcy Lawler placing a large wager on the Dragons have shrouded the ‘Mudbath’ grand final ever since, with two contentious calls singled out by proponents of rort claims.  Peter Dimond was denied a seemingly fair try, while St. George winger Johnny King leapt up and ran in for a try after Wests players vehemently asserted they had heard Lawler call for King to play the ball 20 metres further back.

It was the end of a golden period for the club.  Despite retaining 1963 Kangaroos Dimond, Kelly and captain Summons, the Magpies finished seventh out of ten teams in 1964 and did not return to the finals for another decade.  The steady flow of Test players and up-and-coming stars the club managed to recruit had dried up, and Wests returned to also-ran status.

The Magpies began to build a formidable line-up again in the mid-1970s, led by tenacious halfback Tom Raudonikis, who captained Australia in the Ashes-deciding third Test on the 1973 Kangaroo Tour amongst 29 Test appearances.  Future Test players John Dorahy and Les Boyd linked with the club in the mid-1970s, while cult hero forward John Donnelly joined from Gunnedah in 1975 and represented Australia in his first season in Sydney.  The unfancied Magpies made the finals in 1974, but the arrival of coach Roy Masters in 1978 saw the club reach – and arguably exceed – its potential.

Tapping into the working-class psyche of his Wests team, Masters developed an ‘us-against-them’ mentality within the side which corresponded with their aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of play.  Wests’ adoption of the ‘Fibros’ moniker during this period was down to puppeteer Masters.  It was a reference to the Fibro (short for Fibrous Asbestos Cement) sheets that were a popular building material at the time, particularly for inexpensive housing in working-class areas – such as Sydney’s Western Suburbs.  Masters stirred his players up before a pre-season match against Manly’s ‘Silvertails,’ as he called them, a wealthy club based near Sydney’s northern beaches. 

The promotional match, staged in Melbourne, erupted into a series of wild brawls and a bitter feud was born.  The ‘Fibros’ vs. ‘Silvertails’ fixtures over the next few seasons were some of the premiership’s most brutal and ferociously contested clashes.  Another tactic employed by Masters involved his players firing themselves up by engaging in vigorous face-slapping sessions with each other in the changing rooms before matches.  The novel method attracted controversy when it was aired as part of documentary on top-rating current affairs program 60 Minutes.

On the back of this passion and fire, Wests won the minor premiership in 1978 after posting a club record 16 regular season victories.  But the Magpies were rolled 14-10 by the Sharks in the major semi and went down 14-7 to arch-nemesis Manly in an explosive preliminary final.  Wests finished fourth in 1979 but were eliminated by Canterbury on the first weekend of the finals, after which rival clubs pillaged the Magpies’ playing stocks.  Test stars John Dorahy and Les Boyd, along with NSW hooker Ray Brown (a non-playing reserve for Australia in the 1979 Ashes series), signed with Manly, exacerbating the ill feeling between the two clubs.  The cash-strapped Magpies also watched club legend Tom Raudonikis and future NSW Origin rep Graeme O’Grady depart to play for Newtown.

Undeterred, Masters found a new batch of players to enforce his fire-and-brimstone approach.  John Ribot joined from the Jets and was transformed from a hard-working lock into one of the game’s most damaging wingers; Jim Leis was the inaugural Dally M Rookie of the Year in 1980 and represented Australia, while Terry Lamb was another eye-catching newcomer; and ‘Lord’ Ted Goodwin, a former international and superstar St. George fullback, enjoyed a late-career renaissance as a forward with Wests.

Masters was named Dally M Coach of the Year for his efforts in taking his new-look Wests side to within one victory of the 1980 minor premiership.  After a dogged campaign, the Magpies were eventually eliminated in the preliminary final by Easts.  But the club’s strongarm tactics came into conflict with the NSWRL’s efforts to clean up the game in the early-1980s.  ‘Dallas’ Donnelly was slapped with a 14-match ban against the Sea Eagles in the first match of 1981, and Wests finished sixth to miss the finals for the first time since Masters took over as coach.

Terry Fearnley, who took Parramatta to consecutive grand finals in 1976-77, replaced the St. George-bound Masters in 1982.  Discipline still proved a problem, however, with Bob Cooper receiving an unprecedented 15-month suspension for his role in a vicious brawl in a match against Illawarra.  Against the odds, Fearnley guided the Magpies to the finals in 1982, but the coach and several key players departed at the end of the season as the club’s financial situation deteriorated.  Wests’ exhilarating ‘Fibro’ era had abruptly come to a close and the Magpies finished last under coach Len Stacker in 1983. 

The club was excluded from the 1984 premiership along with Newtown, but was reinstated following a court appeal.  The remainder of the 1980s offered few highlights for the Magpies, before they enjoyed a brief comeback with consecutive finals appearance in 1991-92 with shrewd coach Warren Ryan at the helm and a host of former Bulldogs players, including internationals David Gillespie, Paul Langmack and Andrew Farrar, in great form.  Raudonikis returned to coach the club in its last five seasons, taking Wests to the 1996 finals, but standing alone in a 14-team NRL competition was not a viable option and the Magpies entered a merger with Balmain in 2000 after collecting consecutive wooden spoons in 1998-99.

The Magpies, who retain a direct presence with a side in the NSW Cup, maintained a solid identity within the Wests Tigers joint venture and rejoiced in the club’s 2005 premiership triumph.  The rich history of each club is celebrated and remembered, including those talented and colourful teams of yesteryear with contradicting cultures – ‘The Millionaires’ and ‘The Fibros.’

Victims of Their Own Success

It takes a club several years to build a team capable of winning a premiership, carefully moulding combinations and developing the cohesion required to enact a title-winning game plan.  But in the current NRL climate, where the salary cap is the highest law and the bottom line, each victorious grand final side is dismantled in the space of a few seasons.  Premierships lead to representative rewards, necessitating contract upgrades for young stars, and the inevitable purging of players to fit under the cap. 

The salary cap has undeniably created a more even competition – nine different premiers in the past decade is testament to the NRL’s unpredictability and part of its subsequent appeal.  The only club to win more than one title in the last ten years – Melbourne – was found to have blatantly breached the salary cap during their golden period and was stripped of both premierships. 

The Panthers are one of the most pertinent examples of the difficulty in keeping a victorious grand final squad together.  After Penrith won the 2003 NRL title, Luke Lewis, Luke Rooney, Trent Waterhouse and Joel Clinton won immediate Kangaroo selection, Rhys Wesser and Ben Ross made their Origin debuts the following season, while Joe Galuvao and Paul Whatuira became Kiwi Test regulars.  The resultant contract upgrades required to hang on to the new rep stars – from pre-existing incentive clauses or simply increased market value – saw the squad gradually disintegrate.  Astonishingly, by 2009 only Lewis and Waterhouse remained at the Panthers from the 2003 grand final 17 – seven were with rival NRL clubs, three in Super League, two with rugby union sides, while the remaining three had retired.  After reaching the preliminary final in 2004, the Panthers went on a top-eight hiatus, finally returning to the finals in 2010 with a new-look side.

It was a similar story for 2006 premiers Brisbane, whose grand final side was ravaged by rival clubs and codes over the ensuing few seasons.  The Broncos had traditionally been the competition benchmark for retaining the nucleus of their squad – eight players who played in either the 1992 or 1993 grand finals were still with the club during the 1997 or 1998 premiership seasons, while six players (plus injured regular Petero Civoniceva) from the 2000 grand final-winning squad partook in the club’s 2006 grand final celebrations.  But in 2010, only captain Darren Lockyer, brilliant centre Justin Hodges and dynamic forward Sam Thaiday remained at Red Hill from the decider four years earlier, and the perennial pacesetters missed the finals for the first time since 1991.

The Bulldogs’ victorious 2004 side was also rapidly picked apart – when veteran fullback Luke Patten departed for the European Super League at the end of 2010, only skipper Andrew Ryan remained at Canterbury.  Only six of Newcastle’s grand final side of 2001 played for the club in 2006, 14 of the Roosters’ 2002 grand final squad had departed after just four subsequent seasons, while Manly’s 2008 premiership side had already lost seven players by the time the 2010 season rolled around.

While Melbourne’s flaunting of the salary cap rules between 2006 and 2010 kept the club’s crack squad together temporarily (ten players appeared in both of the Storm’s 2007 and 2009 grand final victories), the NRL’s severe reaction to the breaches forced the Storm to disband their successful squad swiftly.  Just six members of the club’s 2009 grand final side fronted up in Melbourne for the 2011 pre-season.

2005 premiers Wests Tigers are the exception to the recent rule.  Unquestionably the least-heralded squad to win an NRL title when they defeated North Queensland 30-16 in the 2005 decider, the Tigers fielded eight members of that grand final side during the 2010 season – the next time the club qualified for the finals.

Imminent salary cap increases and concessions may alleviate the modern trend slightly.  But the even nature of the NRL is one of its strongest drawcards – and the high turnover of playing rosters is an unavoidable product of maintaining the status quo.  A repeat of St. George’s dominance of the 1950s and 1960s is virtually impossible – which is not necessarily a negative outcome – but it will take equally large portions of loyalty, luck and good management for an NRL club to replicate even Parramatta’s three-peat of the early-1980s.  The days of a club dominating for several seasons, as Melbourne’s demise in 2010 proves, are over.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Crossing the Ditch

New Zealanders currently represent a sizeable chunk of most NRL clubs’ playing rosters.  There has been a Kiwi presence in every grand final since 1993, while a number of stars from the Shaky Isles rank amongst the world’s finest individual talents.  But it took many decades for players from Australia’s easterly neighbours to make a major impact in the Sydney premiership. 

Several Kiwis ventured to Britain following the advent of rugby league in New Zealand and the subsequent tour to the Mother Country in 1907-08 – most notably Lance Todd and former All Black Charlie Seeling – and the national side was a formidable opponent for Australia and England (later Great Britain).  The first New Zealanders to play in the Sydney premiership were members of the trailblazing 1908 Maori side that toured Australia – Peter Moko (nine games for Glebe in 1909) and Punga ‘Glen’ Pakere (five games for Norths in 1910).  Another Maori player, Huatahi Turoa Brown Paki, played 15 games for St. George in 1923.

Bill Kelly, a former All Black who toured Australia with the Kiwis in 1912 and 1913, was lured across the Tasman by Balmain in 1914.  He became the first player to represent New Zealand and Australia in rugby league (a feat which has been replicated only by Tonie Carroll, 89 years later) in his first season in Sydney, playing in the centres in one Test against England for Australia.  The following season he captain-coached Balmain to the club’s maiden first grade title and the first undefeated season by a premiership club.  Kelly became a revered coaching figure after his retirement as a player in stints with University, Newtown, Balmain (including another premiership win in 1939), St. George and Canterbury.  Fittingly, Australia and New Zealand compete for the Bill Kelly Cup in the mid-season Test. 

But the New Zealand Rugby League prevented their ‘amateur’ players from crossing the Tasman to play in Australia for several decades, finally easing that stance in the 1960s – provided the sought-after player had given satisfactory service to the game in New Zealand. 

Lock Rex Percy, a veteran of nine Tests and two tours to Australia in 1956 and 1959, joined Balmain in 1961 and spent three seasons at Leichardt before heading to the country and captain-coaching in Parkes and Yass.  The Kiwis’ success on the international stage in the early part of the decade – including a 2-0 home series defeat of Great Britain in 1962 – piqued the interest of clubs in Australia.  Manly signed NZ Team of the Century hooker Jock Butterfield and 11-Test forward Trevor Kilkelly in 1964, but both men had modest seasons.  Butterfield, a veteran of 36 Tests, played only nine games, while Kilkelly appeared in six in the Sea Eagles’ disappointing campaign. 

NZ Team of the Century lock and 22-Test Kiwi Mel Cooke accepted a player-coach role with Canberra in 1965 and skippered the Monaro representative side against the touring Lions the following season.  The brilliant loose forward also won selection for NSW Country.  Another back-rower in New Zealand’s Team of the Century, 18-Test Kiwi Ron Ackland, finished an admirable career with stints for Goulbourn and Inverell in country New South Wales.  

Many more Kiwi greats bolstered the line-ups of country clubs in NSW and Queensland – predominantly in captain-coach roles – including former Test captain Graham Kennedy (Wagga Kangaroos), Team of the Century five-eighth George Menzies (Harden), 28-Test utility-back Cyril Eastlake (Narromine, Goulburn), 18-Test prop Robert Orchard (Redcliffe, Mt. Isa, Mackay, Cairns) and 22-Test centre Bill Sorenson (Glen Innes).  Further loosening of the NZRL’s transfer regulations ramped up the flow of players to Sydney, with Bill Schultz spending three seasons with Easts in the late-1960s, although the former Test hooker struggled to cement a regular first grade berth.

Playing professionally overseas meant the end of the international careers of departing New Zealand players, but that did not stop several Kiwi representatives joining Sydney clubs in their prime during the early 1970s.  Tough forward Oscar Danielson, the first Samoan-born player to join an Australian club, played five Tests for New Zealand before joining Newtown for a three-season stint in 1970.  Fearsome prop Bill Noonan cut his Kiwi career short after just two Tests to join Canterbury in 1970, where he became the first New Zealander to appear in grand final.  He was part of the side that went down to Roosters in the 1974 decider, and went on to play 161 games for the club in nine seasons, before joining Newtown in 1979. 

Canterbury also acquired the services of goalkicking prop Henry Tatana and centre Bernie Lowther in 1972 following New Zealand’s stunning 24-3 defeat of Australia the previous season.  Tatana, who kicked six decisive goals in that match, was second in the premiership’s pointscoring race in 1973 with 159 – the second-highest total in club history at the time.  He topped a century of points again in 1974 but was dropped from first grade late in 1974 and missed the grand final.  Lowther was similarly unlucky.  He was the club’s top tryscorer in 1973 with 13 (fourth-equal in the premiership) and scored four tries in a match against Penrith in 1974, but was relegated before the finals.

Both players left the club, with Lowther proving a handy buy for Souths over the next two seasons, while Tatana topped the scoring for St. George in 1975-76.  Tatana’s reliable kicking helped the Dragons to finals victories over Manly and Easts in 1975, but he became the second Kiwi to suffer grand final defeat when the Roosters hammered Saints 38-0 in the decider.  Tatana left the club following St. George’s finals exit in 1976, having scored 547 points in five seasons in the premiership.

Penrith delved into New Zealand’s rugby union ranks in 1978, luring highly-rated prop Kent Lambert to the club.  Lambert, an 11-Test All Black, had publicly bemoaned the financial hardships suffered by the then-amateur code’s players and signed with the Panthers.  He penned a three-year contract, but a severe run of injuries limited him to just one first grade appearance.

More successful were Auckland’s rugby league Test brothers, Dane and Kurt Sorensen, who joined Cronulla in the late-1970s.   Dane crossed over in 1977 but suspension ruled him out of the following year’s grand final, before Kurt linked with the club in 1979.  In a mutually beneficial move, the NZRL allowed overseas-based players to continue representing  the national side, and the intimidating forwards carved out illustrious international careers for the Kiwis.  Dane Sorensen played a then-record 216 first grade games for the Sharks, while Kurt finished his career with a successful stint in England after 118 games in Cronulla colours.

The trickle of Kiwi players to the Sydney premiership became a torrent in the early-1980s.  Powerful five-eighth Olsen Filipaina, who regularly outpointed Wally Lewis at Test level, linked with Balmain in 1980.  But he was unable to replicate his international form on a consistent basis and left the Tigers after five patchy seasons, before spending much of his time in subsequent stints with Easts and Norths in reserve grade.  Tough-as-teak prop Mark Broadhurst gave excellent service to Manly and Illawarra, but Kiwi greats James Leuluai (Manly) and Fred Ah Kuoi (Norths) struggled to adapt and found greater success in English club football. 

But the Bears and Roosters benefitted handsomely from a host of successful Kiwi imports during the 1980s.  Powerful second-rower Mark Graham’s contribution in eight years with the club saw him chosen in the Bears’ Team of the Century in 2006.  A long-serving Kiwi captain, Graham won a premiership with Brisbane Norths under coach Graham Lowe in 1980 before linking with the Bears and winning the Dally M Second-rower of the Year award in 1981-82.  He was named New Zealand’s Player of the Century in 2009 and appeared in 147 games for North Sydney.  Tenacious half Clayton Friend, who played a vital role in Kiwi Test victories over Australia in 1985 and 1991, played four seasons of first grade for the Bears and finished third in the 1987 Dally M Medal count.

Kiwi Test regulars Gary Prohm, robust three-quarter Dean Bell and ultra-talented lock Hugh McGahan joined Easts in 1985.  McGahan was the most influential signing, captaining the Kiwis while playing for the Roosters and taking over the club captaincy in the late-1980s.  He was temporarily installed as captain-coach after the mid-season sacking of Russell Fairfax in 1990, before retiring at the end of 1991 with 118 first grade games and 32 Tests (and a then-record 16 Test tries) to his credit.   Former All Black Kurt Sherlock became just the second post-World War II dual international and was a valuable utility-back over six seasons with the Roosters, racking up 88 appearances and 235 points.

Darrell Williams became the first Kiwi to win a premiership in 1987, playing in the centres in Manly’s 18-8 grand final victory over Canberra.  In the Raiders side that day was New Zealand Test prop Brent Todd, who won titles with the Green Machine in 1989-90 and lost another grand final against Penrith in 1991, before wrapping up his career with Gold Coast.  Gary Freeman was Balmain’s halfback in the Tigers’ twin grand final losses in 1988-89.  After falling out with new Balmain coach Alan Jones in 1991, Freeman moved to Easts and became the first overseas player to win the Dally M Medal in 1992.  A veteran of a then-record 45 Tests for New Zealand, Freeman was a valuable No. 7 in subsequent stints with the Panthers and Eels, retiring in 1996 with a total of 151 first grade appearances.

Newcastle dipped heavily into New Zealand’s reservoir of talent for their 1988 entry into the premiership.  Sam Stewart was the club’s first captain, while Tea Ropati, Adrian Shelford and Tony Kemp also turned out for the Knights in their inaugural season.  Kemp’s return to Newcastle in 1989 was initially blocked by the NZRL but he eventually spent six seasons in Knights colours and played for the Crushers in their 1995 debut season, while also making 25 Test appearances.

A vigorous raid on New Zealand’s rugby union ranks in the early 1990s resulted in several All Blacks and provincial players switching codes.  The recruitment drive simultaneously elevated the importance of a quality goalkicker within a first grade side’s make-up.  15-a-side recruits Matthew Ridge (Manly), Daryl Halligan (Norths), Eion Crossan (Souths), John Schuster (Newcastle) and Gavin Hill (Canterbury) emerged as genuine match-winners with the boot for Australian rugby league clubs. 

Ridge, enticed to Australia by Manly’s Kiwi coach Graham Lowe, was joined at the Sea Eagles by the game-breaking Iro brothers, Kevin and Tony, and Adrian Shelford.  Rigde was one of the decade’s finest fullbacks, winning a premiership with Manly, setting a host of pointscoring records and captaining his country before heading home to join the Super League-aligned Warriors.  Halligan became the first player in premiership history to pass 2000 points in first grade in a decorated career with the Bears and Bulldogs that garnered a premiership in 1995 and 19 Test appearances.

Initially a reserve grade player at North Sydney, Jarrod McCracken quickly gained a reputation as fiery, game-breaking centre for the Bulldogs in the early-1990s.  A 22-Test Kiwi rep between 1991 and 1999, McCracken joined the Eels in 1996 and developed into an intimidating second-rower.  He co-captained Parramatta in 1998-99 and was the inaugural skipper of the Wests Tigers during their 2000 debut season.

Northcote winger Sean Hoppe was a sensation for the Raiders in 1992-93 but was axed from the club after he signed to join the Warriors for their 1995 debut.  He signed a one-year deal with Norths and scored 15 tries, while his ex-Canberra team-mates Ruben Wiki and Quentin Pongia played a crucial role in the Raiders’ 1994 grand final victory.  Pongia’s front-row partner John Lomax suffered the same fate as compatriot Dane Sorensen 17 years earlier when suspension ruled him out of the decider (see Suspension Denies Grand Final Dream).  Lomax and Pongia, though outstanding props, had careers littered with suspension and injury, but Wiki became one of the all-time great Kiwi imports.  An ironman in 225 appearances for Canberra, Wiki eventually joinied the Warriors (where he originally signed a contract to play in 1995 before backing out of the deal) in 2005 and became the first overseas player to make 300 first grade appearances.

McCracken, Halligan and Kiwi Test winger Jason Williams were in Canterbury’s losing grand final side in 1994, but the latter two tasted title success the following season, alongside former All Black John Timu (McCracken was demoted from first grade after signing with the ARL during the 1995 Super League war).  Ridge was in the Manly side that went down to the Bulldogs in 1995, but combined with another ex-All Black, devastating centre Craig Innes, in the Sea Eagles’ 1996 triumph.

The Auckland Warriors’ 1995 entry into the premiership enticed several Australian-based Kiwi players back to New Zealand, including Hoppe, Hill, Gene Ngamu and Wests’ Kiwi international Stephen Kearney.  The skilful and intimidating second-rower eventually joined Melbourne in 1999 and was a vital component of the Storm’s premiership-winning side in his first season.  He left the NRL at the end of 2005 with 264 first grade games and 43 Tests under his belt, before earning a reputation as a future NRL mentor at the Storm and as New Zealand national coach which led to a first grade head coach role with Parramatta in 2011.

Despite the homeward pull of the Warriors, many Kiwi players remained integral to Australian clubs throughout the 1990s.  Inspirational lock Tawera Nikau helped Cronulla to the 1997 Super League grand final before joining Kearney and fellow New Zealanders Matt Rua and Richard Swain in Melbourne’s 1999 grand final celebrations.  Despite spending just two seasons with the Storm, one of the grandstands at the club’s Olympic Park was renamed ‘The Tawera Nikau Stand’ in 2005.  Richie Barnett, Nikau’s team-mate at Cronulla, was an outstanding backline player for the Sharks and Roosters and captained New Zealand in 11 of his 26 Test appearances.

Formidable but suspension-prone prop Craig Smith debuted with Souths in 1995 before joining Illawarra and representing Rest of the World and Queensland’s Origin side in 1997 under the ambiguous representative rules of the Super League war years.  He debuted for the Kiwis the following year in the first of 12 Test appearances and was part of St. George Illawarra’s losing grand final side in 1999.  Another valuable front-rower, 16-Test Kiwi Jason Lowrie, played 160 games for the Roosters, Balmain and Wests Tigers, and was renowned for taking 139 first grade appearances to score his first try.

Although Nathan Cayless was born in Sydney, he identified with his New Zealand parentage and represented the Kiwis 39 times, captaining the Kiwis to an historic World Cup final victory in 2008.  Installed as Parramatta captain as a 21-year-old, he became the first player to captain one club in 200 first grade games before retiring in 2010.  His brother Jason won a premiership with the Roosters in 2002 and played ten Tests for the Kiwis.

Powerhouse winger Lesley Vainikolo (Canberra) and classy centre Willie Talau (Canterbury) managed to slip the Warriors’ net to debut during the 1998 NRL season, with Talau forming a right-side combination with Halligan in a Bulldogs side that powered to the grand final.  Explosive forward Tony Puletua made his debut for Penrith a year earlier and was a mainstay of the Panthers’ pack, before forming one of the modern era’s best second-row combinations with former Warrior Joe Gulavao as the club won the 2003 premiership.

Nigel Vagana began his first grade career with the Warriors but was a tryscoring sensation at the Bulldogs, topping the premiership in 2002.  Subsequent stints with the Sharks and Rabbitohs took his career tally to 140 tries and the devastating centre remains the only overseas player to break the 100-try barrier.

Three young Kiwis – Benji Marshall, Sonny Bill Williams and Karmichael Hunt – took the NRL by storm in 2004, although Broncos fullback Hunt pledged his allegiance to Australia and represented Queensland and the Kangaroos with distinction.  ‘SBW’ was the complete package: sublimely skilled, fast, and strong, he was one of the game’s biggest hitters, best off-loaders and most damaging ball-runners.  The centre/back-rower was part of the Bulldogs’ premiership-winning side in his debut season, alongside fellow Kiwis Matt Utai and future South Sydney captain and Test skipper Roy Asoatasi, but infamously walked out on the club in 2008 to play rugby union in France, before becoming an All Black in 2010.  Meanwhile, Asotasi was at one stage recognised as the world’s best prop and 2002 Dally M Rookie of the Year Utai scored 71 tries in 127 games for the Bulldogs before joining the Tigers in 2011 after a season in the NRL wilderness.

Marshall, the only one of the aforementioned superstar trio to remain in rugby league after Hunt’s 2010 switch to AFL, stamped himself as one of the decade’s most dazzling individual talents.  The Tigers’ unheralded squad, which contained New Zealanders Paul Whatuira (previously a premiership-winner at Penrith) and Dene Halatau, rode Marshall’s brilliance all the way to grand final glory in 2005.  The mercurial pivot emerged through several injury-riddled seasons to star in the Kiwis’ 2008 World Cup triumph and take over the New Zealand captaincy in 2009.  He became arguably the game’s premier match-winner in 2010 after spearheading the Tigers return to the finals and the Kiwis’ stunning upset of Australia in the Four Nations final.

Melbourne’s champion side of the late 2000s, which has been sullied by revelations of salary cap breaches that resulted in the stripping of two premierships, contained a strong Kiwi influence.  Forwards David Kidwell (a 25-Test Kiwi who played over 200 games for five NRL clubs), Jeremy Smith, Adam Blair and Sika Manu each played a key role in the Storm’s on-field dominance during this period.  After switching to the Dragons in 2009, Smith was one of seven Kiwi Test players in the 2010 grand final.  Jason Nightingale and former Warrior Nathan Fien accompanied Smith on the Saints’ victory lap, while young stars Sam Perrett, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Jared Warea-Hargreaves were in the Roosters side that went down 32-8. 

New Zealand’s brazen challenge to Australia’s world rugby league supremacy – which included the Kiwis’ upset of the Kangaroos in the 2008 World Cup and 2010 Four-Nations finals – was exacerbated by the Warriors’ memorable charge to a second grand final appearance in 2011.  The gallant Warriors were beaten 24-10 by a Manly side featuring Kiwi stars Galuvao, budding superstar five-eighth Keiran Foran and centre enforcer Steve Matai.  The Warriors’ Under-20s outfit took out their second straight title, while feeder side Auckland Vulcans also qualified for the NSW Cup decider in a momunmental year of achievement fcor the club.  

Many other Kiwis have had a massive impact on the NRL with Australian clubs in the last decade – Frank Pritchard at Penrith, Bronco and Bulldog Greg Eastwood, Tigers bulldozer Taniela Tuiaki, former Cowboys captain Paul Rauhihi and scores more – ensuring that there will continue to be a sizeable New Zealand presence in the NRL outside of the Warriors.  Australians joke (or complain) about the hordes of New Zealanders in general that move across the Tasman, and that influx is also reflected in the proportion of Kiwis starring in the NRL.   From the humble beginnings when the Kiwis in the premiership could be counted on one hand, there is now at least a handful of New Zealanders at every NRL club – and the competition is all the more richer for it. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

Minties Moments

The popular chewy lolly Minties, originating in Australia in the 1920s, became synonymous with promotional cartoons and later television ads depicting mishaps or unfortunate events, accompanied by the immortal slogan “It’s moments like these you need Minties”.  During the 1980s and 1990s, many of these ads featured a montage of calamitous sporting moments, similar to the gaffes illustrated in this chapter.  But it is doubtful a bag of Minties would have consoled these unfortunate individuals.

Steve Mavin
Perhaps the most infamous finals performance of all time belongs to flamboyant South Sydney three-quarter Steve Mavin.  After enjoying a fine rookie season in 1987 in the centres, Mavin was switched to the wing late in the year and experienced a minor-semi nightmare on the flank against Canberra.  The Raiders terrorised Mavin with a pinpoint kicking game and scored three tries down his wing after just 16 minutes, at which point he was hooked by coach George Piggins.  A distraught Mavin had left the ground by the time Canberra finished the scoring blitz at 46-12.  Mavin went on to chalk up over a century of first grade games with Souths and Canterbury, but his career is unfortunately measured against one ill-fated September afternoon at the SCG. 
Commentary – Rex Mossop: “Mavin’s world has fallen about him at the moment.  Have a look at him, the poor lad.”

Neville Glover
A dropped ball in a grand final has somewhat unfairly tainted Parramatta winger Neville Glover’s career – it is the predominant memory his name evokes despite the fact he scored 59 tries in 130 first grade games and represented Australia in 1978.  With the Eels in search of their maiden premiership and trailing Manly 11-10 in the 1976 decider, an unmarked Glover spilled a pass – with the tryline and grand final hero status beckoning – that would have put his side in front.  Sea Eagles sharpshooter Graham Eadie kicked a fourth penalty two minutes late to clinch a 13-10 win.  

Max Mannix
Speedy winger Max Mannix played 24 games for the Bulldogs and Steelers, but his name is synonymous with one unfortunate blunder.  A mid-season 1984 match between heavyweights Canterbury and St. George was evenly poised at 8-4 in favour of the Bulldogs when Canterbury fullback Mick Potter sliced through.  Potter’s pass found Mannix – playing in his second first grade game – who set off on a thrilling 60-metre run to the tryline, outpacing the cover defence.  But as Mannix dived and stretched out his arms to score, the ball flew out of his hands.  Luckily for the rookie, the Bulldogs clung to their four-point lead, but footage of the incident is invariably wheeled out when memorable gaffes are mentioned.  
Commentary – Ray Warren: “And it’s a try... oh he’s dropped it! Oh how embarrassing!” 

Nathan Merritt
Mercurial tryscoring South Sydney winger Nathan Merritt missed out on a four-pointer in the opening round of 2010 against archrivals the Roosters in embarrassing circumstances.  After retrieving a kick in his own in-goal, Merritt broke through the first line of defence and set sail for the tryline with only open pasture in front of him.  Few players in the NRL would have been capable of reining in the Rabbitohs flyer and the closest chaser was a determined Nate Myles, a back-rower.  Nevertheless, Merritt looked up at the giant screen to check his progress and the ball popped out of his grasp, denying him a 101-metre try.  Merritt still managed to score both of Souths’ tries in a 36-10 loss, but his howler was replayed countless times in the days the followed – and is likely to be for many seasons to come.
Commentary – Ray Warren: “Oh it’s not Max Mannix is it?”

Martin Kennedy
Roosters tyro Martin Kennedy trumped Merritt for the most cringe-worthy bungle of 2010 just a fortnight later.  Trailing 22-0 early in their Round 3 clash with the Bulldogs, the Bondi boys finally got on the board just before the half-hour mark.  But any hopes of a miracle comeback were dashed from the ensuing kick-off.  Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce collected the ball on his own tryline and popped a regulation pass to his charging front-rower Kennedy, but the young Queenslander tripped and the ball ricocheted off his head.  Canterbury pivot Ben Roberts scooped up the loose ball and shifted it to centre Josh Morris, who evaded three defenders – including Kennedy – to dot down for the third of his four tries in a 60-14 walloping.
Commentary – Phil Gould: “If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny.”

Russell Richardson
With Cronulla comfortably leading the Hunter Mariners during a 1997 Super League fixture, Sharks centre sensation Russell Richardson looked set to put the icing on the cake with a length-of-the-field runaway try.  But after doing all the hard work, Richardson’s lackadaisical approach to planting the football resulted in the youngster dropping it over the line to seal his place in the rugby league hall of infamy.

Luke Phillips
Valuable Roosters custodian Luke Phillips produced one of the most lamentable howlers witnessed in an NRL finals match.  With his side trailing Parramatta 10-8 just after halftime in the 2000 qualifying final, Phillips spilled a deep kick by the Eels.  But instead of cleaning up the loose ball, he ran past the ball in exasperation, expecting a scrum to be packed.  Eels centre David Vaealiki played to the whistle and toed the ball through to score an easy try, setting the underdogs on the path to a 32-8 boilover.  Phillips bounced back to play a brilliant hand in the Roosters’ grand final loss to Brisbane three weeks later, and won a premiership with the club in 2002.

Brett Finch
A bold attempt to push for a late victory backfired horribly for 19-year old Canberra halfback Brett Finch against the Knights in 2001.  The enthralling Round 8 clash was locked at 20-all in the dying stages and the Raiders were awarded a restart on their own 20-metre line.  Finch opted to kick the ball downfield towards the sideline – bouncing the ball into touch would give his side a scrum feed in handy field position, and the opportunity to work the ball into position for a last-minute field goal attempt.  But the youngster put the ball into touch on the full – by less than a metre – giving the Knights a gift penalty in front of Canberra’s posts.  Andrew Johns duly slotted the penalty goal for a 22-20 victory, leaving an inconsolable Finch slumped on the Canberra Stadium turf.

Jason Bulgarelli
One of the closest-fought finals matches of the NRL era to date was played out between Canberra and New Zealand in 2003.  The Raiders and Warriors had struggled for 20 minutes of the second half to break a 16-all deadlock and save their respective seasons, and with five minutes to go it seemed certain the Green Machine were headed for a preliminary final.  Canberra half Mark McLinden threaded through a grubber and robust centre Jason Bulgarelli only had to claim the bouncing ball which sat up for him on the Warriors’ tryline.  But just as a preliminary final berth beckoned, the ball rebounded out of Bulgarelli’s hands.  New Zealand worked the ball to the other end of the park for Stacey Jones to kick the Warriors to a famous victory with a late field goal.  

Brett Hodgson
Despite performing admirably for NSW in two series (2002 and 2006), courageous fullback Brett Hodgson’s career in the Blue jumper is chiefly remembered for his role as the fall guy in two indelible Origin moments.  After being rag-dolled over the touchline by Gorden Tallis in the drawn third match of the 2002 series, Hodgson fired a misdirected pass out of dummy-half near his own line with NSW ahead 14-10 in the late stages of the 2006 decider.  Queensland skipper Darren Lockyer swooped on the loose ball to score under the posts and clinch the match and series 16-14 – starting in motion an unprecedented five-series winning streak for the Maroons.  Tallis’ tackle and Lockyer’s try are two of the most replayed sequences every year at Origin time.

Phil Duke and Phil Sigsworth
NSW debutant winger Duke (see One Game Wonders) and fullback Sigsworth (see Unique Achievements) conjured one of Origin’s most infamous gaffes in the deciding match of the 1982 series.  With Queensland holding a slender 5-3 lead, Sigsworth popped a dicey pass to an unsuspecting Duke behind his own tryline when confronted by a menacing Queensland chasing party.  Duke fumbled the ill-conceived pass, allowing Wally Lewis to pounce on the ball for the series-winning try.  Sigsworth went on to achieve further infamy as the last player to be sent off in a grand final (for Canterbury in 1986), while Duke, one of only three players chosen for NSW while playing for a country club, is now synonymous with the in-goal bungle.  Duke was awarded the Blues’ only try earlier in the match but, ironically, video replays showed he had stepped into touch and fumbled the ball over the line. 
Commentary – Rex Mossop: “That’s a terrifying bit of football from a NSW point of view.”

Justin Hodges
Evoking memories of Duke and Sigsworth, Justin Hodges endured the most notorious debut in Origin history in 2002 with two misdirected in-goal passes that led to NSW tries (see Unforgettable Debuts).
Commentary – Ray Warren: “And will Hodges pass this time? I don’t think...oh...I can’t believe it!  He’s had another go at it!”

Terry Lamb
Canterbury legend Terry Lamb kicked the most poorly-timed field goal of all time late in a 1992 clash with Newcastle.  He struck the ball sweetly from 40 metres out and it went straight down the middle – the only problem was the Bulldogs were two points behind at the time.  A sheepish (no pun intended) Lamb admitted after the match he thought the scores were tied, with his clanger allowing the Knights to hang on for a 12-11 win.

Andrew Gee
Veteran Brisbane prop and Queensland Origin stalwart Andrew Gee cost the Broncos at least one competition point on a technicality in a 1996 match against the Roosters.  The two sides had staged a Monday night classic and, with the scores locked at 10-all in the final minute, Gee took a 20-metre tap after the ball had rolled dead.  But he incorrectly brought his foot up to meet the ball in his hands (instead of executing a mandatory tap with the ball on the ground), drawing a penalty in front of the posts.  Sydney City centre Ivan Cleary slotted the simple goal after the fulltime siren to secure a 12-10 victory over the shattered Broncos.  The rule regarding tap restarts has since been changed – an amendment that is surely of scant consolation to Gee and the Broncos.

Wade McKinnon’s Try
Parramatta held a tenuous 16-14 lead against St. George in a 2005 regular season grudge match when Dragons skipper Trent Barrett kicked downfield from near halfway.  Barrett over-reacted to a perceived late and high shot from PJ Marsh, grabbing the Eels hooker by the throat before unleashing several punches, attracting a swarm of players from both sides.  Meanwhile, Parramatta fullback Wade McKinnon fielded the kick and evaded the few defenders not involved in the melee to score a bizarre 80-metre try untouched.  The video referee concluded that Marsh did not hit Barrett high and the try was subsequently awarded.  The evenly poised match suddenly swung Parramatta’s way and the home side eventually ran out 40-14 winners, while Barrett copped a one-match suspension for striking.

Adam O’Neill
A late-comer to rugby league, South Sydney winger Adam O’Neill quickly gained a reputation as a fiery customer.  The son of former Test cricketer Norm O’Neill, he did not play the game until his late teens, but made enough of an impact at Souths to represent City Firsts and the President’s XIII in 1988.  But his short fuse cost the Rabbitohs a match later that season.  With Souths tied 12-all with Cronulla at the SFS in the dying minutes, O’Neill was held on his own 20-metre line before reacting wildly to the tackle of Cronulla prop Craig Dimond.  O’Neill was penalised and Sharks winger Sean Watson calmly slotted the penalty goal after fulltime to win the match.
Commentary – Rex Mossop: “Now there is a stupid action.”

Johnathan Thurston
Cowboys captain Johnathan Thurston had the opportunity to clinch a much-needed win for the floundering club against Cronulla in Round 16, 2010.  North Queensland had given up an 18-0 lead for the match to head into golden point with the scores tied 19-all at fulltime.  Thurston, who earlier in the season kicked his first 25 shots at goal, duffed a simple 30-metre penalty shot from in front during the extra period that would have ended the game.  Cronulla captain Trent Barrett subsequently slotted a field goal, consigning the home side to a heartbreaking loss.
Commentary – Mark Braybrook: “Thurston to win the game...he has missed it! Can you believe it?”

Mark Levy
The Panthers made the leap from perennial cellar-dwellers to finals contenders in 1984, but were left to rue a lost opportunity against eventual premiers Canterbury that could have earned them a maiden finals appearance.  Nearing the end of a thrilling Round 20 contest, rookie Greg Alexander pegged Penrith back to 22-20 behind with a determined try.  Penrith fullback Mark Levy had the chance to draw the match with a conversion attempt slightly to the left of the posts, but he shanked the simple shot into the right-hand upright.  The one competition point that went begging would have been enough to put the Panthers into a play-off for fifth spot.
Commentary – Ray Warren: “Oh he’s missed it! Oh my goodness, how could you do it?”

Don Fox
Most of the content in these pages focuses on the Australian game, but a section containing tragic goalkicking misses would not be complete without mentioning versatile Great Britain international, and Featherstone and Wakefield great Don Fox.  In the 1968 ‘Watersplash’ Challenge Cup Final against Leeds, Wakefield scored a try under the posts with the last play of the game to trail 11-10.  Fox was left with the simplest of conversion attempts to win English club football’s biggest prize, but infamously skewed it wide in the slippery conditions.  Legendary English commentator Eddie Waring summed up the thoughts of millions with his reaction: “He’s a poor lad.”  In a cruel irony, Fox had already been adjudged the winner of the Lance Todd Trophy for man of the match – little consolation for the devastated goalkicker.

Churchill Medal a Lucky Charm

The Clive Churchill Medal – awarded to the best player in the grand final since 1986 – is one of the most coveted individual honours in rugby league.  Named after legendary South Sydney fullback and Australian captain Clive Churchill, who passed away in 1985, the award is voted on by the Australian Test selectors.  While several established internationals have won the medal, it has often provided the impetus for stars on the rise to claim an Australian jersey for the first time and has invariably seen the winner’s career rocket to a higher level.

1986 – Peter Sterling (Parrmatta)
By the time Sterling played his masterful hand in the only tryless decider in the game’s history – Parramatta’s dramatic 4-2 eclipse of Canterbury – he was already established as one of Australia’s greatest-ever halfbacks.  After the grand final, Sterling was duly selected for his second Kangaroo tour where he played a leading hand in another series cleansweep of Great Britain as vice-captain.  He skippered NSW for the first time and became the first player to achieve the Rothmans Medal-Dally M Player of the Year double in 1987.

1987 – Cliff Lyons (Manly)
One of the great ball-players of all time, Lyons scored the first try of the Sea Eagles’ 18-8 defeat of Canberra in the last grand final played at the SCG, and was dynamic throughout.  Lyons had made his NSW debut earlier in the season and played two further Origins in 1988.  While he had to wait until 1990 to play for Australia (establishing himself as an Ashes hero in the process), Lyons’ Churchill Medal display saw him recognised as a genuine match-winner and temporarily shed the enigmatic tag.  He was regularly ignored by rep selectors during the 1990s, however, despite winning the Dally M Medal in 1990 and 1994.

1988 – Paul Dunn (Canterbury)
Skilful prop Paul Dunn had a Kangaroo Tour and seven Tests under his belt before his robust performance in the Bulldogs’ 24-12 victory over Balmain in the 1988 grand final, but had played just one Test, against PNG, since 1986.  Dunn was selected in Australia’s side for the World Cup final following the grand final, while he was rewarded with his first Origin starts in 1989 after one appearance as a reserve in 1988. 

1989 – Bradley Clyde (Canberra)
19-year-old Clyde’s tireless display in the greatest grand final of them all – Canberra’s 19-14 extra-time classic against Balmain – added to the skyrocketing reputation of the young back-rower.  He had returned as ‘Player of the Tour’ after Australia’s mid-season trip to New Zealand earlier in the season.  While he was plagued by injury for much of his career, Clyde became one of the all-time greats and was an immediate selection for Australia and NSW for the next five years.

1990 – Ricky Stuart (Canberra)
Former Wallaby international Ricky Stuart played a wonderful role as conductor of the Raiders’ second premiership victory in the 18-14 defeat of Penrith.  The brilliant No. 7 won his first Australian call-up as a member of the 1990 Kangaroo Tour squad hours after the grand final.  After playing five-eighth in the first Test loss to Great Britain at Wembley, he displaced Broncos and Queensland rival Allan Langer at halfback and it was Stuart’s injury-time bust to send Mal Meninga over for a try that saved the Ashes at Old Trafford.

1991 – Bradley Clyde (Canberra)
Clyde became the first (and so far only) player to win the Churchill Medal twice, while he was also the first player to claim the award while playing on a losing side – his Raiders went down 19-12 to Penrith.  He was an automatic selection for Australia’s post-season tour to PNG and was installed as vice-captain of the squad at just 21 years of age.

1992 – Allan Langer (Brisbane)
Incomparable Brisbane halfback and captain Allan Langer was one of the game’s elite players when his dominant two-try performance in the 28-8 thrashing of the Dragons delivered the Broncos their first premiership.  Langer went on to spearhead Australia’s victory in the 1992 World Cup final over Great Britain at Wembley and establish himself as Queensland’s greatest-ever halfback and a legend of the game over the ensuing decade.

1993 – Brad Mackay (St. George)
Mackay’s energetic grand final effort saw him become the second player to win the Churchill Medal from a losing side, with St. George going down 14-6 to Brisbane in a dour decider.  A Test and Origin regular, the versatile Mackay played all three matches for NSW in 1994 and the one-off Test against France, although he missed out on Kangaroo selection at the end of the year.

1994 – David Furner (Canberra)
Second-rower David Furner scored the first try and kicked four goals in Canberra’s 36-12 thrashing of the Bulldogs in the 1994 grand final.  His Churchill Medal win was followed by selection for the Kangaroo tour squad that night – the 23-year-old’s initial call-up to the national side.  Furner forced his way into the squad for the first Test against Great Britain and scored 56 points in nine tour appearances.

1995 – Jim Dymock (Sydney Bulldogs)
Despite being one of four Bulldogs to renege on Super League contracts to sign with the ARL and Parramatta, ball-playing lock Dymock played a pivotal role in the club’s remarkable charge to the grand final and 17-4 boilover against red-hot favourites Manly in the decider.  Initially chosen for Tonga, Dymock went to England as part of Australia’s 1995 World Cup squad.  He played in four matches at the tournament and debuted for NSW the following season.

1996 – Geoff Toovey (Manly)
The courageous Toovey defied a fractured eye socket to lead his Sea Eagles to grand final victory over St. George, 20-8.  A Test regular during the mid-1990s, Toovey captained Australia for the first time against PNG a week after being awarded the Clive Churchill Medal for another typically gutsy display.

1997 – Robbie O’Davis (Newcastle)
Knights custodian O’Davis was a popular choice for the Clive Churchill Medal following his dazzling two-try display in Newcastle’s dramatic 22-16 triumph in the 1997 ARL grand final.  An Australian rep during the fractured years of Super League and behind Tim Brasher in the Test pecking order, O’Davis was chosen as fullback in the 1998 Anzac Test – the first full-strength Australian side in four years.  He held off a challenge from Darren Lockyer (who debuted off the bench in the match), but was banned later in the year after testing positive to steroids.

1998 – Gorden Tallis (Brisbane)
The ‘Raging Bull’ was a reluctant recipient of the medal after Brisbane’s superb team effort swamped the Bulldogs 38-12 in the decider.  The rampaging second-rower deflected praise onto his team-mates for the win, but was chosen to make his Test debut two weeks after the grand final, scoring two tries in a heavy defeat of New Zealand.  Tallis became a Test and Origin captain in the early 2000s.

1999 – Brett Kimmorley (Melbourne)
Kimmorley was the linchpin of the Melbourne side that scored a dramatic 20-18 upset of St. George-Illawarra in the 1999 grand final, putting up the cross-field kick that resulted in a penalty try to unconscious winger Craig Smith to win the game.  Ultra-talented but trapped behind greats Andrew Johns and Allan Langer in the rep stakes to that point in his career, Kimmorley made his Test debut during the end-of-season Tri-Nations, playing all three Tests in Australia’s successful campaign.

2000 – Darren Lockyer (Brisbane)
Well on his way to becoming a all-time great, Brisbane fullback Lockyer was an obvious choice for the medal after his side’s 14-6 defeat of the Roosters, displaying many of the traits that made Clive Churchill an Immortal of the code.  Lockyer went on to star in Australia’s emphatic 2000 World Cup success and captained Queensland to victory in the 2001 Origin series, before becoming a record-breaking Test skipper over the next decade.

2001 – Andrew Johns (Newcastle)
Widely regarded as the game’s number one player and potentially the best of all time, Andrew Johns orchestrated Newcastle’s 30-24 upset of runaway minor premiers Parramatta with a first half ambush.  Johns was the key man in Australia’s retention of the Ashes in England at the end of 2001 and succeeded Brad Fittler as Test skipper the following season.

2002 – Craig Fitzgibbon (Sydney Roosters)
Playing in the third grand final of his relatively young career, Craig Fitzgibbon scored a try and kicked five goals as the Roosters subdued the Warriors 30-8 in the grand final.  Yet to break into representative football before the 2002 finals, the back-rower was chosen to debut for Australia in the one-off Test against NZ after the decider, the first of 18 appearances for his country.  Fitzgibbon broke into the NSW side for the first time the following season and starred in series wins in 2003-05.

2003 – Luke Priddis (Penrith)
Evergreen hooker Luke Priddis was magnificent in Penrith’s 18-6 victory over favourites and defending premiers the Roosters in the 2003 grand final, scoring a try and setting up the other two for winger Luke Rooney.  A Super League international with the Raiders in 1997 and NSW hooker while playing for Brisbane in 2001, Priddis was unlucky to miss out on the 2003 Kangaroo tour squad.  Priddis did, however, play his one and only Test a little over 18 months later against NZ in 2005.

2004 – Willie Mason (Canterbury)
Controversial forward Willie Mason’s damaging running and bruising defence was a catalyst for the Bulldogs’ 2004 grand final victory over archrivals Sydney Roosters.  Mason regained his Test spot during the 2004 Tri-Nations after missing out on the Anzac Test side earlier in the year, playing in Australia’s defeat of Great Britain in the final and retaining first-choice status until 2008.

2005 – Scott Prince (Wests Tigers)
After several luckless seasons plagued by injury, brilliant halfback Scott Prince emerged to skipper the effervescent Tigers to the premiership with a superb display in the 30-16 grand final win over the Cowboys.  Prince made his Queensland debut in 2004 but was replaced by Jonathon Thurston in 2005.  But Prince’s points decision over his North Queensland counterpart Thurston in the decider saw him chosen for Australia’s Tri-Nations campaign, where he made his Test debut against Great Britain.

2006 – Shaun Berrigan (Brisbane)
One of the most versatile players of the modern era, Shaun Berrigan was a deserved Churchill Medallist after his performance as Brisbane’s hooker in the 15-8 upset of Melbourne.  Berrigan embarked on a one-man mission to contain Storm danger man Greg Inglis and was lethal with the ball out of dummy-half.  A former Test centre, Berrigan regained a spot in the Australian side during the 2006 Tri-Nations series after the grand final as an interchange utility.

2007 – Greg Inglis (Melbourne)
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy had endured a season of criticism for moving Greg Inglis to five-eighth after the young superstar had previously flourished at centre, wing and fullback.  But Inglis’ dominant two-try exhibition in the Storm’s 34-8 disposal of Manly in the grand final thwarted the detractors.  With captain Darren Lockyer occupying the No. 6 jumper in the Queensland and Australian sides, Inglis has been an automatic choice in the centres since (and eventually returned there at club level), but won the Dally M Five-eighth of the Year award in 2008.

2008 – Brent Kite (Manly)
It is unusual for a prop to carry off man of the match honours in a 40-0 victory, but such was Manly prop Brent Kite’s powerful performance in the 2008 grand final belting of Melbourne, few were surprised at his naming as Clive Churchill Medallist.  A Test regular from 2006, Kite played in all five matches of Australia’s World Cup campaign at the end of the season.

2009 – Billy Slater (Melbourne)
Storm fullback Billy Slater had launched himself into the top echelon of the NRL’s stars before his Churchill Medal-winning display helped Melbourne beat Parramatta 23-16 in the 2009 grand final.  The reigning Golden Boot and RLIF Player of the Year had become one of the first players picked in the Test side and rebuffed the challenge of Eels superstar Jarryd Hayne before scoring three tries in Australia’s Four-Nations final defeat of England at the end of 2009. 

2010 – Darius Boyd (St. George Illawarra)
Dragons fullback Darius Boyd capped a superb season, in which he finished third in the Dally M Medal count, with a man of the match display in the Saints’ drought-breaking defeat of the Roosters in the 2010 decider.  Boyd lost his Australian wing spot in 2009, but was recalled by Kangaroo selectors for the Four Nations tournament less than 24 hours after collecting the Churchill Medal and was named fullback of the year at the RLIF awards.

2011 – Glenn Stewart (Manly)
Dynamic Sea Eagles lock Glenn Stewart’s Churchill Medal-winning performance in Manly’s 24-10 defeat of the Warriors is one of the most remarkable stories in the award’s 26-season history.  Suspended for his role in an infamous sideline brawl with Melbourne forward Adam Blair in the penultimate round of the regular season, Stewart was sidelined for the first two matches of his side’s finals campaign, making his return in the decider.  In a brilliant all-round performance, Stewart had a leading hand in two tries and scored a crucial four-pointer himself, despite not having played for a month.  He was selected in Australia’s Four Nations squad the following day – his first national call-up since the 2009 mid-season Test against the Kiwis – but he later withdrew, citing personal reasons. 

While it should come as no surprise that winning the Churchill Medal has led to higher honours, as it symbolises a player’s ability to rise on the biggest occasion, the strike rate is remarkable.  Seven uncapped players made an immediate Test debut, while the remaining two who had not represented Australia did so within three years.  Five players earned a re-call to the national side at the next available opportunity, two captained Australia for the first time within a season, two more were chosen as vice-captain on tours directly following the grand final and the remaining eight carried on their representation in the green-and-gold.