Monday, 24 October 2011

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.

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