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The Clive Churchill Medal honour roll reads like a Who’s Who of rugby league and, after the scandal of last year’s award not going to the worthy winner, one thinks that the panel will go out of its way to avoid controversy this year.
For the uninitiated, the Clive Churchill Medal goes to the man of the match in the National Rugby League Grand Final. Created to honour one of Australia’s greatest rugby league players following his death in 1985, it has become a major National Rugby League Grand Final betting event in recent times. Last year, Clive Churchill Medal punters who had backed Sonny Bill Williams were counting their winnings before the shock post-match announcement that SBW, whose second-half performance had turned the game in favour of Sydney, had lost out to Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans.
The Clive Churchill Medal panel copped it from all quarters and Cherry-Evans, who was excellent in a Manly team that led 18-8 before Williams produced several pieces of magic in the last half hour, was booed as he received the award from Churchill’s widow, Joyce. Twelve months have passed but surely no-one has forgotten what happened last year.
And that is why one thinks there is value in backing South Sydney forward Sam Burgess to win the Clive Churchill Medal in Sunday’s National Rugby League Grand Final in which his Rabbitohs are short odds to beat the Bulldogs of Canterbury.
All the Clive Churchill Medal trends are against the best of the four Burgess brothers who are on South Sydney’s books. No player who did not qualify for Australia’s national side has ever received the Clive Churchill Medal and Sam Burgess will quit rugby league to become a rugby union player after the National Rugby League Grand Final. But one thinks that the trends being against Burgess will work in his favour.
Australia selectors comprise the Clive Churchill Medal panel and, after New Zealand international Williams missed out in 2013, they will be paying extra special attention to the overseas players in 2014. They did not take too kindly to accusations that they had eyes only for local stars.
Another factor that played against Williams was the feeling that he would return to rugby union after just one National Rugby League season with Sydney. That turned out not to be the case but, at the time of last year’s National Rugby League Grand Final, he was odds on to quit rugby league for the second time. It is public knowledge that Sam Burgess is becoming a rugby union player. If Burgess has a blinder of a National Rugby League Grand Final, it would be churlish of the Clive Churchill Medal panel to overlook him.
And there is every chance that Sam Burgess will have a blinder of a National Rugby League Grand Final. South Sydney and Canterbury met twice during the National Rugby League regular season and Burgess was outstanding in both matches. Burgess ran for 150 metres, made 42 tackles and scored one try when South Sydney lost 14-15 to Canterbury in Round Seven of the National Rugby League, a performance that earned him two Dally M Medal votes. Burgess went one better in the Dally M Medal count when South Sydney defeated Canterbury 21-14 in Round 25 of the National Rugby League, his 193 metres, 31 tackles and two tries making him the game’s undoubted star player. The National Rugby League Grand Final is going to be a brutal battle in the forwards and, if South Sydney justifies favouritism, it is almost guaranteed that Burgess will be one of its best performers.
Finally, Clive Churchill is the greatest player in South Sydney’s history, the Rabbitohs are contesting their first National Rugby League Grand Final since 1971 and Sam Burgess is, according to many good judges, the best British player to grace Australasia’s top rugby league competition. It will be a great story if Joyce Churchill, possibly accompanied by South Sydney owner Russell Crowe, hands the Clive Churchill Medal to Burgess in his final match for the Rabbitohs.