Michael Burgess: SBW robbed of Clive Churchill

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Sonny Bill Williams celebrates after fulltime in the Roosters' grand final win over Manly. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams celebrates after fulltime in the Roosters' grand final win over Manly. Photo / Getty Images

Sonny Bill Williams isn't the first Kiwi to be overlooked for a Clive Churchill medal - and unfortunately he probably won't be the last.

The fact that the New Zealand second rower missed the iconic award, when he or team-mate James Maloney seemed more deserving than Manly's Daly Cherry Evans, was the only slightly sour note from a fantastic NRL decider, which was the best grand final in a decade.

Since the first Kiwi was spotted in a grand final in 1974 (Bill Noonan, Bulldogs vs Roosters) there have been 119 appearances by New Zealanders on league's biggest day.

The trickle - two in the 1970s, five in the 1980s, 24 in the 1990s - has become a flood in recent times with 47 in the last decade and already 41 in the four showpiece games since 2010.

Despite this, there has never been a New Zealander judged best on field.

Probably the worst decision came in 1999. The Melbourne Storm faced a seemingly impossible deficit of 18-6 early in the second half, before Tawera Nikau and Stephen Kearney helped to turn the game. Nikau in particular was outstanding - in the finest NRL game of his career - as he monstered the Dragons pack on attack and defence, as well as providing deft touches with the ball in hand. To many observers he was the most influential player on the field, but the award was given to Brett Kimmorley (The halfback had been Melbourne's best player during their finals' run, and had a good match in the grand final, but it was a highly erroneous decision).

Matthew Ridge was a strong contender in 1996 but missed out to Geoff Toovey after the Sea Eagles beat St George while Roy Asotasi also earned many plaudits in 2004 (Bulldogs vs Roosters) but was shaded by Willie Mason. Adam Blair was a stand out for the Storm in 2009 (though both Billy Slater, who won the award and Cooper Cronk were exceptional) while Jason Nightingale came up with two tries in 2010 for the Dragons (Darius Boyd).

Part of the issue is the judging panel, which is usually comprised of current Kangaroo selectors and delivers a understandable favouritism towards Australian players. The other issue is the timing of the voting, which traditionally has been done well before full-time. Last night the vote was taken more than ten minutes before the end of the match.

It can lead to some difficult situations, like in 1991 when Canberra's Bradley Clyde was adjudged best on ground despite being on a losing side. He had an outstanding first 50 minutes in that game, but several from the Panthers were more deserving.

It was a similar issue last night. There is no denying that Cherry-Evans had a great game, and up until the 60th minute was the leading figure in the game. But Williams, as well as Maloney, came into their own in the last forty minutes and were the key architects in the Roosters' memorable victory.

In the days when votes were cast on slips of paper, collated, and then delivered down to the ground announcer the early adjudication was necessary. But with the modern technology available, surely the decision can wait until the game is over and then be instantly conferred to the MC on stage.

Meanwhile, rest assured that SBW's appeal goes well beyond the traditional league and rugby heartlands. Watching the game in a crowded Melbourne pub last night, Williams was the most popular player among fans, many of whom were unfamiliar with the 13 a side game but aware of the star quality of the dual code international.

- NZ Herald

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