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Churchill, Clive Bernard (1927–1985)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Clive Bernard Churchill (1927-1985), footballer, was born on 21 January 1927 at Merewether, Newcastle, New South Wales, second son and fourth child of Herbert Hilton Churchill, clerk, and his wife Vera, née Fergusson, both New South Wales-born. He was educated at St Joseph’s Convent, Merewether, and at the Marist Brothers’ High School, Hamilton. At primary school he learnt the rudiments of boxing from Fr Joseph Coady, an early mentor and patron of Les Darcy, the hero of the Hunter Valley. In his autobiography, They Called Me the Little Master: Clive Churchill’s Colourful Story (1962), Churchill wrote that he thought he had a vocation to be a Marist Brother but, having failed the Leaving certificate, he became a tyre moulder.

As a schoolboy Churchill had excelled at Rugby League. Playing without boots, he kicked with either foot, though mainly the left, and developed a quicksilver elusiveness at five-eighth, occasionally at full-back. Known as `Tigger’, he played for Central Newcastle in 1945. Dark and dapper, he weighed 10 st. 7 lbs (67 kg), and was 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall. Concentrating on full-back, in 1947 he played for Country Seconds against City, and so impressed the South Sydney Club that their patron, Dave Spring, signed him up for £12 10s. per match.

South Sydney, `pride of the League’, had won the first premiership in 1908 and by 1947 had won ten more, the last in 1932. It was embedded in a red-blooded working-class district, based on Redfern, with passionate and widespread supporters. Churchill moved to Mascot, on the southern fringe of the club’s area. He fitted perfectly into the distinctive ethos of the club, and into the traditional free-flowing style of its team; he soon shone at full-back.

He was selected for the 1948-49 Kangaroos’ tour of Britain, followed by a tour of France. This experience consolidated his exceptional talents. Despite his diminutive size Churchill honed a lethal tackling technique; based on exact timing and leverage, it enabled him to fell the beefiest of stampeding forwards, and could be adapted to smother skilful backs. In attack, instinctively reading the play, he transformed full-back tactics by limiting return kicks and running the ball to fuse with the three-quarter line; in these movements, his mercurial side-stepping, swerving and changing of pace were spiced with gibes and gestures at his opponents in the style later made famous by the boxer Muhammad Ali. When Churchill failed, he was buried under a swarm of tacklers, to emerge bloodied but defiant. The English regarded him as bad tempered and spiteful; to the Australians he was `the little master’, a will-o’-the-wisp with a sting.

In June 1950, aged 23, Churchill led Australia to its first `Ashes’ win against Britain since 1920. In September he played, under Jack Rayner’s captaincy, when South Sydney regained the premiership. With Jack Glasheen as its president until 1954, Souths also won the Sydney competition in 1951, 1953, 1954 and 1955; its success was built on outstanding teamwork that noticeably incorporated Churchill’s extraordinary ability and courage. On 13 August 1955 he broke a wrist at Redfern Oval, but played on, with a makeshift splint, to kick a goal after the final bell to win a game against Manly. Rejecting an offer from Wollongong, he had renewed his contract with Souths in 1953. On 19 June 1950 he had married Shirley Grace Berriman, a dressmaker, at St Francis’s Catholic Church, Paddington. He needed to supplement his income, and in the 1950s he was variously a storeman, sports-store salesman, garage proprietor and taxi driver.

In July 1954 Churchill led Australia to another `Ashes’ win. After thirteen Tests against Britain, he was replaced as captain in 1956 by Ken Kearney for the ninth Kangaroo tour—his third; he was dropped after Australia lost the first Test. Playing against Britain, France and New Zealand in Tests and World Cup matches, he represented Australia thirty-seven times. Throughout his tours, he had not only dominated on the field; he had also enlivened his team-mates with his mimicking, singing and telling of tall tales. Now the embers flickered. Divorced in June 1958, on 31 January 1959, as an insurance inspector, he married Joyce Ivy Martin in the registrar general’s office, Sydney. He had turned to coaching, first with Souths as captain-coach in 1958. He coached and played with the Queensland team in a win over New South Wales in 1959, when he also trained the Australian team against New Zealand and France. In 1960-61 he was player-coach at Moree and in 1963-64 he prepared Canterbury. His career reignited; all the strands of his Rugby League primacy blended and triumphed nostalgically when he coached South Sydney to the premiership in 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1971. As Souths lost star players and games in 1972-74, Churchill was criticised and, amid recriminations, he resigned in 1975.

In January 1982 he was seriously injured when his liquor shop at Randwick was robbed; his assailants were ordered to pay him $5000 each. In December 1984 he was hospitalised with cancer. Next May a packed testimonial dinner raised about $50,000 for him and in June he was appointed AM. Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 9 August 1985 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown. He was cremated after a requiem Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral. The Clive Churchill Stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground is named after him, and the Clive Churchill medal is awarded to the best player in the grand final of the National Rugby League competition.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Hyde, Straight Between the Posts (1995)
  • G. Moorhouse, A People’s Game (1995)
  • I. Heads et al, South Sydney (2000)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Apr 1985, p 75, 1 June 1985, p 72, 10 Aug 1985, p 74, 11 Aug 1985, p 22.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Churchill, Clive Bernard (1927–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/churchill-clive-bernard-12317/text22125, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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