Canberra Raiders' Jack Wighton caps stunning NRL rise with Dally M Medal

Jack Wighton with the 2020 Dally M Medal. Picture: Getty Images
Jack Wighton with the 2020 Dally M Medal. Picture: Getty Images

It isn't the medal Jack Wighton wanted this year, but it's a pretty good consolation prize. The Canberra Raiders star capped a brilliant 2020 season by winning the Dally M Medal on Monday night.

But just like his Clive Churchill Medal win in the grand final last year, Wighton's moment in the spotlight was almost overshadowed by an announcement blunder.

The anticipation surrounding top individual in the NRL was ruined when a story appeared on The Daily Telegraph website hours before the winner was to be revealed, forcing production staff to confiscate phones from the contenders.

The accidental publication of Wighton's win became a massive talking point, but the Canberra five-eighth said he had no idea about the controversy.

It follows Wighton being named the grand final's best player in Canberra's loss to the Sydney Roosters last year, with officials telling Roosters enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves he was the winner before Wighton was announced on stage.

The NRL is set to investigate The Daily Telegraph's mistake, and the early announcement took away the theatre from a tense final round as Wighton held off challenges from Clint Gutherson and favourite Nathan Cleary.

"Halfway through they took our phones so we weren't sure why," Wighton said after becoming the first Raiders in 25 years to be named the NRL's best player. "We had no idea.

"Even towards the end I was writing myself off, missing that last game. It was a massive shock to receive,"

Wighton now joins club greats Ricky Stuart (1993) and Laurie Daley (1995) as the only Raiders to have won the award.

"I can't really explain it. I'm actually speechless," Wighton said. "I really didn't think I was going to walk away with the award.

"I really want to thank the club and everything they've done for me. All the boys, I can't do it without the boys each week. Last but not least my beautiful partner [Monisha] and my two girls for putting up with me all year in isolation. It wouldn't have been easy, I guess. So I thank them."

Wighton no doubt would've preferred a premiership medal having gone so close last year, but the Melbourne Storm knocked the Raiders out of the title race at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.

Jack Wighton speaks in the build-up to winning the Dally M Medal tonight. Picture: NRL Imagery

Jack Wighton speaks in the build-up to winning the Dally M Medal tonight. Picture: NRL Imagery

This isn't a bad way to ease the pain, though.

It's been a remarkable 12 months for Wighton, who won last year's Clive Churchill Medal as best-on-ground in Canberra's narrow grand final defeat to the Roosters.

He's taken his game to a new level in this coronavirus-affected campaign and shared the Mal Meninga Medal with Josh Papalii as Canberra's best players.

The 27-year-old was the only Raider invited up to the awards night, which was conducted as a virtual event.

Wighton said Raiders coach Ricky Stuart had played a key role in his evolution as one of the game's premier players, after helping him overcome off-field troubles in the formative years of his career.

"I think just his support over the last couple of years, he's been really backing [me]. He's the one who had faith to move me into the halves. That in and of itself is something I really built a lot of confidence off. That's what got me here today," Wighton said.

"I had a good look in the mirror. I've got two beautiful girls and I just had to make a change. It was a pretty easy choice; go one way or the other.

"This is the one I picked."

Wighton also took home the Dally M five-eighth of the year and Raiders enforcer Josh Papalii was named one of the two props of the year.

Wighton attributed the club's on-field success in 2020, which resulted in a second successive preliminary final appearance, to the togetherness of the Green Machine group during a tough season heavily impacted by COVID-19 and a plethora of serious injuries.

"Being down there in Canberra and in the bubble, I wouldn't like to do it with a better bunch of blokes," Wighton said.

"They've just been amazing. I think we're really building. We're setting a foundation. That's something that's really grown over the last couple of years and you can really see that within the boys and within the head of the club. I think we're going the right way."

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Most pundits already had the medal around Penrith halfback Cleary's neck, but Wighton just keeps proving the doubters wrong.

In a thrilling finish, Wighton polled 26 votes to edge out Parramatta captain Gutherson (25 votes) and Cleary (24).

The result was in doubt given Penrith and Parramatta both enjoyed final-round wins while Wighton was rested as the baby Raiders beat the Sharks. But both Cleary and Gutherson failed to poll votes in round 20.

Of course the evergreen and everpresent Cameron Smith (22) was also in the mix.

NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said Wighton had etched his name in history in one of the toughest seasons the competition has ever seen.

The Raiders not only had to deal with living in the Apollo bubble, but they also had the toughest travel schedule of any club in the competition - not to mention a crippling injury toll - yet they still made it to the penultimate weekend.

"Despite unprecedented challenges our players took our game to a new level in 2020," Abdo said.

"Tonight we celebrated our very best, those who provided so much excitement and hope during a challenging time in our community.

"Congratulations to Jack on creating history, winning the Dally M Medal in such a tough and uncompromising season. His feats will forever be etched into rugby league folklore."

This story Announcement blunder overshadows Wighton's moment .. again first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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