The Clive Churchill medal is one of the most highly contested topics leading up to and after the NRL Grand Final.
As the NRL Grand Final rapidly approaches, it’s time to take an in-depth look at who the favourites are to win the Clive Churchill medal.
The man of the match award in the grand final has been around since 1954 and was renamed in 1986 after its inaugural winner Clive Churchill.
In the award’s illustrious 67-year history, it has never been awarded to a centre or winger and has been given to a member of the losing team on just five occasions.
More recently Jack Wighton (2019) and Daly Cherry-Evans (2013) were recipients of the award after losing the big dance.
With history suggesting the award will be given to a key member of the spine, here are the top three contenders for the Clive Churchill medal from both sides.
Nathan Cleary, Penrith Panthers
With Penrith heading into Sunday’s decider as favourites, it’s only fair that their best player is the runaway favourite to win the award.
Cleary has proven this season he is ready to take the next big leap of his young career as he begins to enter his prime years.
The star halfback is at the centre of the Panthers attack with the majority of their set-plays running through him, Cleary is also the lead kicker and stacked up the points in the regular season with 225.
On the back of finishing second on the Dally M vote, being named Dally M halfback of the year and dominating Origin, Cleary has found his feet as one of the game’s elite players.
A strong Penrith performance is largely reliant on a Cleary masterclass – one that we’ve seen on many occasions.
With last years’ grand final defeat still in the back of his mind, Cleary is set to elevate his game to another level as he looks to lead his side to a first premiership in 18 years.
Cody Walker, South Sydney Rabbitohs
The Dally M five-eight of the year has had yet another spectacular season in 2021.
Walker has become one of the best-attacking players of his generation and led the league in try assists (33) and line-break assists (44).
The 31-year-old sparked the majority of the Rabbitohs’ attack this season, spearheading the second-best attack in the NRL.
Walker is undeniably the favourite for the Clive Churchill medal if Souths were to win.
Walker’s impressive stats have only been boosted by the fact that he hasn’t had Latrell Mitchell by his side since his suspension prior to the finals.
The five-eighth has been arguably one of the form players of the 2021 season and will look to give Penrith back-to-back grand final defeats on Sunday.
Damien Cook, South Sydney Rabbitohs
Damien Cook has been the glue in the Rabbitohs spine in 2021.
Cook was arguably the most reliable player for the red and green this year, missing only three games due to origin and playing 80 minutes in all but one game.
Cook continues to stake claim to being the most lethal hooker in the NRL with his explosive runs out of dummy half resulting in 10 try assists and 8 line-break assists.
The 30-year-old has always been in the conversation for the game’s best hooker, becoming NSW’s number 9 for many years now.
Cooks’ influential play out of dummy-half has been a huge factor in Souths success this year and his defence is equal to his impressive attacking game.
After being edged out by Brandon Smith for hooker of the year, Cook looks set to prove that he is the best hooker in the game and what better stage to stake your claim in than the biggest day on the NRL calendar.
Isaah Yeo, Penrith Panthers
The Panthers co-captain has had a year to remember, on the back of his second consecutive Dally M Lock of the year award, Yeo has firmly staked his claim as one of the best forwards in the game.
Yeo has been arguably Penrith’s most influential player this season, leading the pack on both ends of the field.
The 26-year-old ground out opposing forwards with a jaw-dropping 97.8% tackle efficiency, whilst managing 120 average run metres on just 10 attempts per game.
NRL Legend Matty Johns described Yeo as “by far their most important player”.
“He’s an amazing player, that’s a critical combination with Cleary, Luai and Isaah Yeo, it’s like a three-punch sequence when they start to play.
“He [Yeo] starts it all, he didn’t allow his forwards to get bogged down in an arm wrestle with Melbourne… just the way he steers his players around the park, in my opinion, he’s the most intelligent player in the competition,” Johns said on the Matty Johns Podcast.
Yeo’s world-class ‘eyes up’ play is second to none, as his link-up play with his halves and his vision to play inside passes is second to none in the NRL.
With another monster performance, Yeo could yet walk away with another accolade after Sunday’s Grand Final.
Cameron Murray, South Sydney Rabbitohs
Cameron Murray is a slight outsider for this award, however, his hard work through the middle has been on fine display throughout 2021.
The Souths junior put on another impressive year with 40 tackle breaks and 726 post-contact metres.
The versatile forward has displayed his first-class athleticism this season and will be determined to add a maiden premiership to his long list of accolades on Sunday.
Murray’s lethal attacking going forward may result in an open middle field of play and will leave plenty of opportunities for offloads to his teammates.
The 23-year-old already possesses maturity well beyond his years and could lay the platform for his backs to push forward and score plenty of points – a very familiar sight for the Rabbitohs this season.
Murray has a real shot at this award if he puts up yet another stellar performance, he will be many fan’s tip for the award.
Jarome Luai, Penrith Panthers
Can Jarome Luai steal the limelight from his halves partner and run away with the Clive Churchill medal come Sunday?
Luai, much like Cleary has had a stellar season thus far, partnering Cleary in the halves for NSW and was in contention for Dally M five-eight of the year.
The 24-year-old Panther junior has shown his potential as an elite playmaker with 18 try assists and 24 line-break assists on the season.
Forming a lethal combination with fellow stars, Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton and Villiame Kikau on both sides on the ground, the five-eighth has risen his teammates’ stocks in the NRL world.
Luai’s X-Factor has been undeniable this season and has proven to be a solid second section option when kicking the ball – forcing 19 dropouts so far.
Luai has an outside chance at this award, he will have to take over the Panthers side, leading them in both attack and defence to give himself a shot at history.
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