Clive Churchill was arguably the most inspiring figure in Australian rugby league. A resourceful and courageous fullback, he was Test captain for several years. A ‘legend’ in his own time and all those years ago back in 1947 was when he made his Debut with the Rabbitohs.
''He set the standard by which all the famous rugby league players of his era, and since, will be assessed,'' wrote renowned league writer Tom Goodman.
''I never saw Dally Messenger ('The Master') play,'' said Ray Stehr. ''But I have seen the Little Master'' (how his nickname came about).
Churchill was in his second year with Central Newcastle in the 1947 season, and performed well enough to be chosen in the Country Seconds team to play City Seconds in their annual clash at the Sydney Showground. A crowd of 50,253 was there to see the country lads get one over their city cousins in an upset 25-22 win, with Churchill scoring 4 goals.
Shortly after his return to Newcastle his mother rang him at the Girton Tyre Company where he worked to tell him to come straight home because he’s got an urgent telegram. He raced home and opened the envelope to read that a gentleman by the name of Mr Dave Spring (Patron of South Sydney) was coming over tonight to see him. Spring asked him if he was interested in an offer to play for South Sydney at £12/10/-- a match.
Churchill said yes and went to Sydney the following Monday morning, where he met Souths officials at the NSWRL Leagues Club in Phillip Street, City, to sign a contract to play at Souths for the remainder of the year.
Before he was to make his premiership debut Souths asked him to play against Group 7 at Wollongong Showground, which the Rabbitohs lost 20-11. He didn’t have a good game after spraining his ankle in a kicking duel and soon realised that he was playing in a higher standard of football to which he was accustomed to at Newcastle.
Some of the players were giving him a hard time on their train journey home to Sydney, and he was so distressed at his poor display that he approached Mr Dave Spring and Mr Jack Coyne (Vice-President of Souths), telling them he didn’t think he could make it and would like to return home. The two Souths officials spoke to him in a fatherly manner and told him they arranged for him to reside in Hicks Avenue, Mascot, with a dear old lady, Mrs Cheeseman, and that his old Newcastle mate Johnny Graves was also living there. Churchill took their advice and found Mrs Cheeseman waiting at the front door for him and he felt at home at once.
After fulfilling his residential qualification of 28 days he was ready for his first premiership game against Newtown in Round 17, which was played at Erskineville Oval on August 16. He received plenty of encouragement from his teammates before the match which gave him plenty of confidence. He felt he was going alright, until out of the blue came Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell.
He didn’t know who ‘Bumper’ was until he asked one his teammates after the game, but he did read about his tough and fearless reputation. Churchill was tackled with the ball and as he was rising to play it, he heard a deep voice over him exclaim: “Hello Son!” And almost at the same time he felt “Bumper’s” powerfully clenched hands around his head screwing it off. It must have looked like a Frankenstine Monster toying with a helpless rabbit.
In the incident he gave Churchill a beautiful cauliflower ear which was to stay with him forever. Newtown won the match 25-20 and Churchill kicked 3 goals. In his second premiership game they met North Sydney at Sydney Sports Ground in Round 18, which Souths won 19-14, and he kicked a goal. So, as it turned out Churchill only played in those last two games of normal premiership rounds in 1947, because Souths did not make the semi-finals that year.