Rabbitohs.com.au walks you through our pantheon of Club legends in our Hall of Fame series. Today, we bring you the game’s number one player, The Little Master, Clive Churchill.
In what must rank among the most astute predictions made by a Rugby League administrator in the game’s post-war history, Henry Jersey Flegg – then President of the NSWRL – watched a 12 year old Churchill play in a Combined Schools match at the Sydney Cricket Ground one afternoon. It is said that Flegg remarked:
“Over there, I see a youngster who wore number six jersey. I predict that one day he will become an International and Captain Australia in Test football.”
Flegg couldn’t have been more correct, for Churchill would go on to play 37 Tests, making five overseas trips, Captaining Australia for six years and playing a record 99 consecutive representative matches – revolutionising fullback play in the process.
Years later, Flegg would follow up his prediction by saying; “Churchill was the greatest all-round champion the Rugby League code has known.”
Indeed, had there been no Dally Messenger before him – commonly referred to as ‘The Master’ – Churchill may well have taken the title himself, but was appointed ‘The Little Master’ in reference to his slight build – a fact that made his footballing feats all the more impressive.
Standing just 171cm tall and weighing 74kg, Churchill was small, even by the standards of the day in the late 1940s-1950s, but his heart on the field, coupled with freakish ingenuity solidified his position as the game’s number one player and as an Immortal.
Whether it was belting much larger forwards in defence and driving them backwards, returning the ball with enterprising running, or kicking goals from impossibly difficult positions, Churchill won South Sydney (and every team he played for) games.
Former Rabbitohs teammate, Bernie Purcell, spoke glowingly of Churchill before his passing.
“I remember one game when he had to retrieve the ball in-goal from a kick with four opposition players chasing him across the line,” recalled Purcell.
“Churchill scooped up the ball and, just when they were about to tackle him in-goal, he wrapped one arm around a goal-post and swung around it full circle.
“The chasers were so mesmerised by the event that they just stood there with their mouths open while Churchill charged back up-field.”
But it would be his incredible courage in a 1955 game for Souths that would make Churchill the stuff of legend.
At the halfway point of the season, Souths had lost seven of their first 10 matches to all but dismiss the then-defending-Premiers as ‘also-rans’ in 1955. The team would need to win every game from that point in order to defend their crown.
With the season winding down, Souths played Manly in a must-win clash, but Churchill – an integral member of the team – broke his wrist in his first tackle of the game, all but rendering the champion Rabbitoh useless with his arm hanging limply by his side. At half-time, Churchill was advised to not continue, but the fullback insisted that he be allowed to go back on despite his obvious discomfort. Souths’ team doctor, Bill Thurlow, fashioned a makeshift cast out of an exercise book and paddle-pop sticks and sent the Little Master back onto the field in time for Les ‘Chica’ Cowie to score in the corner to make it 7-7.
With his arm hanging in the balance, along with the Club’s season, Churchill lined up the shot from the sideline and booted it over to sink Manly 9-7 amid scenes of euphoria at Redfern Oval. Souths went on to claim that year’s Premiership in what is still regarded as one of the greatest team efforts the game has yet seen.
After concluding his Rabbitohs playing career, Churchill would return to Redfern in 1967 as a Coach to orchestrate Souths’ next golden era with the aid of some of the greatest names in the Club’s history – John Sattler, Ron Coote, and Bob McCarthy to name a few – winning four Premierships in five years between ’67 and ’71.
His illustrious years in the game were honoured in 1981 when Churchill became one of the game’s first Immortals alongside Reg Gasnier, Johnny Raper and Bob Fulton – the South Sydney legend by then feeling the effects of his battle with cancer.
Churchill passed away in 1985, and his funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral, that featured a coffin draped in a Rabbitohs jersey, drew thousands of mourners.
But The Little Master’s legacy has only grown and gotten better with age. In 1986, the Grand Final Man of the Match award was named in Churchill’s honour, with Peter Sterling taking the honours that year. He would also go on to be named the number one player in the game’s top 100, while also being named in Souths’ Dream Team as fullback.