If some sections of the Sydney media or, worse, the howling on social media, are to be believed, you’d think Jack Wighton winning the NRL’s Dally M Medal for player of the year was Hume Highway robbery.
While acknowledging Wighton had a cracker of a season, many pundits are outraged the bloke from Canberra could win the top gong ahead of raging hot favourite for the award Nathan Cleary from the Panthers, and popular Eels fullback Clint Gutherson.
“The system is broken,” people cried as the Raiders five-eighth basked in the glory of being named the NRL’s best player of 2020.
But the truth is, Dally M controversies are nothing new. The award is based on 3-2-1 votes by judges – former NRL players – throughout the season, and given the subjective nature of this format, it is inevitable opinions will vary on who deserves points in any given game.
Therefore, the Dally M is not necessarily an out-and-out declaration of the best player currently lacing up a boot, but is usually a fair reflection of someone who has enjoyed a spectacular year.
Wighton certainly ticks that box.
Panthers halfback Cleary was justifiably the favourite to win the Dally M Medal thanks to a dominant campaign in which he led the men from Penrith to the NRL minor premiership and a regular-season run of 15 straight victories.
However, as is often the case in successful teams, high-performing teammates also nab points which can inhibit a star player’s ability to dominate polling.
Panthers five-eighth Jerome Luai finished equal seventh on the leaderboard, while teammates Api Koroisau and James Fisher-Harris also polled well, proving that at the foot of the Blue Mountains, points were shared during the team’s winning streak.
Cleary also missed two games of the season due to suspension following his infamous TikTok video and COVID-19 breach. Ultimately, that is what likely cost him the Dally M Medal as he finished just two points behind Wighton.
Much of the vitriol regarding Wighton’s win centred on Gutherson, who finished runner-up by a solitary point. Specifically, much of the focus was on the Eels’ round 20 clash with the Tigers in which the fullback failed to land a single vote. His teammates, Nathan Brown and Junior Paulo, deservedly received three and two Dally M points, respectively, thanks to huge run metres in the Parramatta engine room, while Tigers halfback Luke Brooks got one.
Gutherson’s stats for the game, which the Eels won 28-24, make for impressive reading, plus he pulled off a game-saving tackle late in the piece, but they don’t tell the full story. His two try assists were from the top drawer, but his kicking game was poor, drawing the ire of his coach, Brad Arthur.
Brooks, on the other hand, was scheming all night and had arguably his best game of the season.
Again, votes are subjective, and even if Gutherson polled one vote in the game he finishes equal first at best, and Wighton still goes home with a medal around his neck as joint Dally M medallist.
The other point to remember is that if one game from the season is to be put under a microscope, they all should. Were there games where Wighton should have polled higher, or Gutherson lower? Or vice versa? It seems a futile agenda to focus on one round, even if it’s the last of the campaign.
One idea that has been floated for a voting system overhaul is to allocate a score of 1-10 for every player in each game – in the same way Rugby League Week did in its player reviews until the magazine closed in 2017 – and the one with the highest overall tally is crowned rugby league’s best. This system has merit in terms of accuracy and fairness.
What can’t be denied is the impact Wighton had on the Raiders season. Winning nine of the last 11 regular-season games, the 27-year-old was instrumental in everything the Green Machine did well: a brilliant running game, a big body in defence, deft attacking kicks and the ability to produce something special when it mattered. The fact he polled three points in eight games during a reduced 20-round season is testament to his impact on games.
He even sat out the final round against the Sharks, but had done enough by that point.
For a player whose career had seemingly stalled while playing fullback at the Raiders, Wighton’s rise in the number-six jersey has been remarkable. Making the switch last season, his impact as a running playmaker was immediate and it catapulted him to State of Origin and Kangaroos representative jumpers – albeit in the centres.
Now he is the proud owner of a Clive Churchill Medal for player of the match in the 2019 NRL grand final, and a Dally M Medal. Hopefully, for Raiders fans in Canberra and beyond, a premiership ring in 2021 will follow.