Even Luke Lewis admits he was lucky to walk off ANZ Stadium with the Clive Churchill Medal around his neck on Sunday.
The veteran back-rower was a controversial selection for best on ground in Cronulla’s 14-12 drought-breaking NRL grand final win over Melbourne, beating out match-winner Andrew Fifita.
Fifita turned in a game-changing performance – running for a mammoth 191 metres, making 11 tackle busts and 30 tackles.
That’s as well as scoring the match-winning try in the 69th minute in which he carried five defenders over the line.
While Lewis was dynamic and proved a constant threat on the right edge, ran for 140 metres, made 26 tackles in an 80-minute effort and went within inches of scoring at try, only to be denied by a desperate Blake Green tackle, Fifita was roundly considered to be the standout.
“When they read my name out I felt like crying,” Lewis said.
“I pinched myself and thought ‘Is this really happening?’ The first thing I thought about is I’m the person lucky enough to go up and get this medal.
“The 17 guys should be walking up there with me. I know you can’t do that but if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
Lewis was arguably the most controversial Clive Churchill selection since Daly Cherry-Evans, who was awarded the prized medal in a losing side in the 2013 decider.
The grand final win provided Lewis with his second premiership ring, after he also helped the Panthers to the 2003 title as a spiky-haired 20-year-old winger.
After being a part of breaking Cronulla’s 50-year premiership drought, coach Shane Flanagan lauded Lewis as one of the key pieces of their title-winning puzzle.
Flanagan said the decision to lure Lewis from Penrith four years ago helped turn around the culture of the club.
“I had a philosophy when I started coaching, the only rep player we had was Gal,” Flanagan said.
“He was making 200 metres every week and we needed to change that.
“I needed to get some rep players in the club and Luke Lewis was one guy I wanted.”