‘17 years of injustice’: Give Gower his robbed Dally M Medal
In the week the Penrith Panthers celebrate their NRL minor premiership, the campaign begins to rectify a 17-year injustice for one of their greatest players.
Back in 2003 when the Panthers last won the title, their skipper and inspirational halfback Craig Gower was robbed of the game's greatest individual honour - the Dally M award.
He had dominated all year.
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In a selfless act, Gower, who was an Rugby League Players Association club delegate, agreed to a boycott of the Dally M medal to fight for improved wages and conditions our current stars now benefit from.
Here is how it unfolded:
Going into the final round of the competition, Gower was leading Roosters superstar Brad Fittler and Canberra Raiders fullback Clinton Schifcofske by one point.
This was confirmed by News Corp executive Tony Thomas, who was in charge of auditing the votes each week in the years before the NRL and KPMG took control of voting.
However no votes were recorded for the final round of the competition because of the boycott.
Gower was left stranded so agonisingly close to the honour.
THE FINAL ROUND
The Panthers played a local derby against Parramatta at home in front of a crowd of 22,300.
They won 40-22 and Gower had a blinder, picking up the Channel 9 man-of-the-match award.
His statistics from that game were outstanding - he scored a try, had eight runs for 74 metres and made three tackle busts.
Those numbers are better than what this year's Dally M favourite, Nathan Cleary, averages this year.
Fittler's Sydney Roosters team beat Shifcoske's Raiders 23-16 on the same weekend.
The superstar five-eighth, who carried a shoulder injury into the game, kicked a field goal towards the end but got no other mention in the match report by journalist James Hooper.
Canberra coach Matthew Elliott said the Roosters' kicking game made it difficult for Schifcofske to have an impact on the game.
Fittler was asked about the medal boycott after the game.
"It's a shame for Craig, who no doubt would've won it, which is a big thing," Fittler said, "but there's bigger issues I think."
Fittler said the players' action over CBA was something which should have happened much earlier.
"The ex-players (are) bitching about it - (but) if they got off their arses 10 years ago we wouldn't have had a Super League war and we wouldn't have had a lot of dramas that we've had."
Gower was renowned for his tenacity on and off the field.
He was one of the more militant players when it came to RLPA issues and getting a fair go for players.
The boycott threat came as heated talks broke down between NRL chief executive David Gallop and RLPA boss Tony Butterfield. The anger and tension in negotiations had gone on for weeks.
Neither side would budge.
At the time Gower said the boycott was the right thing to happen.
He has since expressed disappointment.
"It would be great to have that accolade in the back pocket," Gower said.
"I thought I was doing the right thing to make a stance. Did it have the right outcome it desired? Unfortunately not. That's the way it is in life."
Commission chairman Peter V'landys has vowed to investigate the Gower case.
"If someone's been robbed of a proper entitlement you have to investigate it," V'landys said. "You'd want to correct that travesty of justice.
"If we can prove he won it, why should we rob him of such a prestigious award?
"How could anyone argue against it if we have sufficient evidence that he did win.
"From what I've heard it was such a selfless act at the time.
"It would be horrible not to give him the medal. I would be prepared to take it to the NRL management."
RLPA boss Clint Newton has previously taken the case to the NRL.
Newton revealed he spoke to former Todd Greenberg and NRL awards manager Frank Puletua about Gower's case last year and again at the beginning of this season.
Typically it was put in the too-hard basket.
"They just ummed and ahhed about it," Newton said. "They were non-committal but said they'd explore it.
"Any move to give Craig the medal has my full support. It was a huge sacrifice he made and it would be a great thing for the game."
Fox Sports commentator Greg Alexander knows all about Dally M medals. He won it himself in his second NRL season at Penrith in 1985 and still cherishes it.
"Gowie was clearly the best player in the competition in 2003," Alexander said.
"The captain of Penrith, minor premiership, grand final win and he played great football for the entire season. He was so dominant.
"To have it taken away by industrial action at the time is wrong.
"He needs to be recognised for it. It's the highest individual honour in the game."
After a 40 year wait, former St George Dragons halfback Steve 'Slippery' Morris was presented with his 1979 Dally M medal at the 2018 awards ceremony.
Until then, the award was officially documented to have started in 1980. Sydney's Daily Mirror newspaper had in fact conducted a player of the year competition in 1979 which they named the Dally M Medal. Morris won but didn't receive a medal.
Aussie Rules has similar stories. The VFL righted a wrong in 1989 when it awarded retrospective Brownlow Medals to players who had tied with previous winners but lost on a countback.
Seven players were awarded backdated medals.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
The old NRL management before V'landys arrived was notoriously slow to deal with important issues like this one. The facts are clear. No one disputes Gower was best and fairest in 2003.
The skilful little halfback had the same impact in the premiership 17 years ago that Cleary has had this year.
The medal should be on his mantelpiece.
This could be the feel good story of the grand final week.
Plus an opportunity for every player in rugby league to salute a little bloke who so generously put the game ahead of his own personal glory.
He deserves it.
Originally published as '17 years of injustice': Give Gower his robbed Dally M Medal