The Clive Churchill Medal, awarded to the best on ground in the NRL Grand Final, is an integral part of rugby league’s showpiece for fans and punters. WILL EVANS runs the rule over the favourites, contender and smokies as Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm gear up for the 2020 decider. . 

A South Sydney icon and one of the four original Immortals, ‘The Little Master’ Clive Churchill passed away in 1985. An award for the best player in the Grand Final for struck in his honour the following season.

Many of the game’s greats have had their names engraved on the Clive Churchill Medal. Canberra lock Bradley Clyde (1989 and ’91) and Melbourne fullback Billy Slater (2009 and ’17) are the only two-time winners.

Clyde (1991), St George’s Brad Mackay (1993), Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans (2013) and last year’s recipient, Canberra’s Jack Wighton, are the only Clive Churchill Medallists to play on a losing team.

Smith favourite for elusive award

The Clive Churchill Medal is the only honour to escape Cameron Smith’s clutches during an incomparable 19-season career. Leading Melbourne to another premiership and capping it with a best-on-ground nod would be the ultimate fairytale finish for the greatest hooker of all time, should he decide to hang up the boots after the Grand Final.

The 37-year-old is the $4.25 Churchill Medal favourite heading into his eighth Grand Final. Smith was surprisingly overlooked for the gong after a stellar display in the Storm’s 2017 defeat of the Cowboys, with Slater the controversial recipient.

Smith has been as dominant as ever in 2020, finishing fourth in the Dally M Medal. He notched three votes on five occasions.

Penrith’s Luke Priddis (2003) and Brisbane’s Shaun Berrigan (2006) are the only Churchill Medal-winning hookers to date. But Smith and the Panthers’ buy-of-the-year contender Api Koroisau – great value at $15 – are destined to be among the most influential players in the Grand Final.

Slater, 34 when he claimed the award in 2017, is the current record-holder as the oldest Churchill Medal recipient. The record was broken in the previous two Grand Finals by Luke Lewis (33) and Johnathan Thurston (32); every other winner has been well under 30 years of age.

Better by half

The Clive Churchill Medal has been won by a halfback in 10 of its 34 seasons. Only four players with the No.6 on their back have claimed the honour – but the last two Churchill Medals were won by five-eighths: the Roosters’ Luke Keary and the Raiders’ Jack Wighton.

Penrith linchpin Nathan Cleary is only a whisker behind Smith in Clive Churchill Medal betting at $4.50. Shaded for the Dally M, Cleary is widely regarded as the standout player of 2020.

The 22-year-old’s finals performances have been exemplary, oozing the poise, leadership and brilliance of champion playmakers of playoffs past. He is the Panthers’ most important player.

Likewise, if Melbourne is to prevail on Sunday night, it’s generally accepted their five-eighth genius Cameron Munster ($11) needs a big game. The 26-year-old has already played in three Grand Finals, but he’ll be out to atone for his shocker in the Storm’s loss in the 2018 decider.

But the junior halves partners – the Storm’s Jahrome Hughes ($17) and the Panthers’ Jarome Luai ($21) – are attracting plenty of attention. The namesake game-breakers have been superb throughout the post-season and are capable of busting the Grand Final wide open. The Kiwi pair are also vying to become only the second non-Australian Clive Churchill Medallist after Sam Burgess (2014).

Somewhat surprisingly, only five fullbacks have carried off the Churchill Medal, with Slater (2017) and Darius Boyd (2010) the most recent. But Storm whippet Ryan Papenhuyzen is on the third line of betting at $10. Panthers No.1 Dylan Edwards is a smoky at $34.

Leader of the pack

While members of the spine typically dominate Clive Churchill Medal betting, the engine-room toilers cannot be disregarded. Players starting at prop, second-row or lock have been adjudged best on ground 13 times in the Medal’s 34 seasons.

Glenn Stewart (2011), Burgess and Lewis all won the award from the back-row in the past decade. Willie Mason (2004) and Brent Kite (2008) were prop winners in a short space.

Panthers trio Viliame Kikau ($21), James Fisher-Harris ($23) and Isaah Yeo ($26) have all enjoyed career-best seasons are the shortest-priced forwards ahead of this year’s decider. Jesse Bromwich ($26) and Dale Finucane ($34) shape as the best options from the Storm’s pack.

No player has ever won the Clive Churchill Medal after starting on the bench. The dynamic Brandon Smith ($34) is more than capable of becoming the first.

If you’re using history as a guide, steer clear of centres and wingers – neither has ever won the Churchill Medal. Consequently, Storm duo Josh Addo-Carr and Justin Olam, and Panthers pair Stephen Crichton and Tyrone May are the shortest-priced three-quarters in the market at $67.

*Odds correct at 9am Friday October 23