Tuesday 20 March 2018 / 01:49 AM


The Clive Churchill Medal, awarded to the best player in the NRL grand final each year, was again a contentious issue following the 2016 classic decider between Cronulla and Melbourne, with Sharks backrower Luke Lewis collecting the prestigious honour ahead of blockbusting prop Andrew Fifita.

Lewis had a fine game, but Fifita was clearly the best afield, making more runs than any other player, racking up 39 tackles with no misses, recording 12 tackle busts and scoring the match-winning try – a sensational 70th-minute effort that will live on grand final folklore.

Fifita’s public support of one-punch killer Kieran Loveridge overshadowed his superb form throughout the finals – with many pundits believing he shouldn’t have been playing in the decider at all, while it also saw the NRL blacklist him from grabbing a Kangaroos Four Nations spot – and almost certainly cost his him the Churchill gong.

The relatively high chances of Fifita making another ill-advised comment and reigniting the furore would have been a disaster for the NRL, and put a black on the Sharks’ watershed triumph. It has been widely suggested the NRL stamped out the opportunity for calamity by rubbing Fifita out of contention for the medal.

The dynamic front-rower adds his name to a lengthy list of players denied a richly-deserved Churchill Medal nod. The top 10 includes three Broncos five-eighths, a hat-trick hero, a retiring club legend who scored a fairytale double, and a couple of gun playmakers who set up a stack of tries to steer their teams to premiership glory.

A revised version would see Fifita top the list for one of the most influential performances by a forward in grand final history – though his off-field actions are arguably unbecoming of being associated with the late, Immortal Clive.

  1. Tawera Nikau – Melbourne Storm (1999)

Brett Kimmorley had a major hand in Melbourne’s stunning comeback from a 14-point halftime deficit to down St George Illawarra 20-18 in the dramatic 1999 grand final, laying on a try for Ben Roarty with a superb pass and putting up the inch-perfect kick that led to premiership-deciding penalty try to Storm winger Craig Smith. Kimmorley consequently became the fifth halfback to win the Churchill Medal. But Kiwi lock Tawera Nikau’s second-half efforts were regarded as having an even greater impact on the extraordinary victory, inspiring the Storm with his ferocious defence and tireless, dynamic work with the ball in hand.

  1. Luke Phillips – Sydney Roosters (2000)

Arguably no player’s performance on a losing grand final side is more revered than Sydney Roosters fullback Luke Phillip’s heroic effort in the 2000 loss to Brisbane. Phillips’ courage at the back prevented a slew of Broncos tries in the 14-6 defeat, while he provided most of the Roosters’ spark in attack in a dour decider. He would have been a Churchill shoe-in had the Roosters prevailed, but instead it was his opposite number, Darren Lockyer, who carried off the honour after a typically polished display in the Brisbane No.1 jumper. Phillips retired in glory as part of the Roosters’ victorious 2002 grand final side.

  1. Michael Robertson – Manly Sea Eagles (2008)

Front-rowers rarely get the plaudits in a 40-0 victory, but Manly prop Brent Kite was a well-received winner of the Churchill Medal following the Sea Eagles’ record defeat of Melbourne the 2008 decider after he produced a mighty display at the coal-face. The prestigious honour could have just as easily gone to Michael Robertson, however, after the underrated winger became just the fourth player in history to score a grand final hat-trick, before delivering the final pass for departing great Steve Menzies’ fairytale late try.

  1. Kevin Walters – Brisbane Broncos (1993)

Brisbane strangled a disappointing St George out of the ’93 decider 14-6 to chalk up back-to-back premierships and become the first club to win the competition after finishing the regular season in fifth spot. The Broncos scored three tries to none, yet industrious Dragons lock Brad Mackay replicated Bradley Clyde’s feat of winning the Churchill Medal on a losing side. Five-eighth Kevin Walters seemed the obvious choice after brilliantly laying on both first-half tries for Chris Johns and Terry Matterson.

  1. Ben Kennedy – Newcastle Knights (2001)

Andrew Johns was the architect of Newcastle’s 30-24 upset of minor premiers Parramatta in the 2001 decider, but game-breaking backrower Ben Kennedy’s blockbusting performance was the catalyst for the Knights’ surge to an unassailable 24-0 halftime lead. Kennedy scored a try, threw the last pass for another and generally terrorised the Eels’ pack in ruthless performance by the inspirational engine-room leader.

  1. Royce Simmons – Penrith Panthers (1991)

Retiring Penrith legend Royce Simmons enjoyed one of the great grand final farewells in 1991, scoring two tries (the first double of the veteran hooker’s 237-game career) in the Panthers’ euphoric 19-12 defeat of Canberra to clinch the club’s first premiership. Simmons steam-rolled Glenn Lazarus to score the first try of the match, and backed up Mark Geyer to bag the sealer in the dying minutes. But Churchill Medal honours eluded Simmons, with Raiders lock Bradley Clyde simultaneously becoming the first player to win the award twice and collect it on a losing team. The snub failed to dampen the mood of Simmons, who famously promised to “have a schooner with every one of youse” after the triumph.

  1. Darren Lockyer – Brisbane Broncos (2006)

Converted hooker Shaun Berrigan received the Churchill Medal honour after Brisbane’s 15-8 upset of Melbourne in the 2006 decider, predominantly for his magnificent efforts in containing Storm danger-man Greg Inglis in defence. But it was undoubtedly captain Darren Lockyer’s masterful display in the No.6 jumper that was most responsible for the Broncos’ triumph. The cool-headed talisman laid on both of the Broncos’ tries for Justin Hodges and Brent Tate, kicked two important goals and landed the premiership-sealing field goal from 35 metres out in the 74th minute.

  1. Anthony Milford – Brisbane Broncos (2015)

North Queensland skipper Johnathan Thurston completed his long-awaited fairytale by getting the Cowboys home with a clutch golden-point field and receiving the Clive Churchill Medal in the epic 2015 grand final. But the mercurial ‘JT’ had been largely well-contained by Brisbane until the latter stages, while his handling error in the first half allowed Jack Reed to score. The best-on-ground gong seemed like a romantic convenience – particularly when Broncos five-eighth Anthony Milford had produced such a dazzling individual performance. Milford made three line-breaks, had a crucial hand in Corey Oates’ memorable long-range try and threatened the Cowboys’ defence constantly. The three players to collect the Churchill on a losing side were highly controversial recipients, but few could have argued against Milford getting the nod; he almost certainly would have if the Broncos had held on.

  1. James Maloney – Sydney Roosters (2013)

Daly Cherry-Evans became the third player to win the medal on a losing side – and the first in 20 years – in a decision that was widely condemned by the media and rugby league fans alike. Although DCE was outstanding in Manly’s 26-18 loss to Sydney Roosters, James Maloney’s monumental influence on the result was worthy of Churchillian recognition. The Roosters pivot’s pinpoint kick produced tries for Daniel Tupou and Michael Jennings, while he made the line-break that led to Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s unforgettable go-ahead score and landed five-from-five off the goalkicking tee.

  1. Cooper Cronk – Melbourne Storm (2009)

Billy Slater was widely regarded as the code’s No.1 player in 2009 and was a popular winner of the Churchill Medal after Melbourne’s 23-16 defeat of Parramatta in the grand final, but Cooper Cronk’s influence was laced throughout the triumph. The halfback made a line-break before sending Adam Blair away for a try, hoisted a bomb that Greg Inglis scored from and produced a breathtaking pass in the lead-up to a Slater four-pointer, as well as exerting his usual clinical control over the contest. Justice was done three years later, when Cronk was adorned with the Churchill Medal following the Storm’s 2012 grand final defeat of Canterbury.

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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