It’s time to right a wrong.
A wrong that, for 20 years now, has denied the man who should have received the award in question the chance to join a rather exclusive club.
With the Dally M’s just around the corner, there’s no better time to fix this situation so that we can duly recognise a great achievement.
It won’t be lost on Panthers fans that the Dally M Awards weren’t held in 2003, after the NRL pre-empted the Rugby League Players Association and cancelled the annual footy prize-giving.
The players had threatened to boycott the awards as part of a push for a collective bargaining agreement, the NRL didn’t want to run the risk of having nobody turn up to collect their gongs, so they canned it in one fell swoop.
It cost Panthers halfback Craig Gower the main prize itself, and while there have been various pushes over the years to have the premiership-winning number seven recognised as one of the elite to have won the award, the governing body has stood firm and maintained its stance that the space beside ‘2003 Dally M Winner’ will remain empty.
That’s tough for Gower who has made it clear he’d like to receive the medal, but it’s an even more bitter pill to swallow for another Panther who had nothing to do with player association threats of a boycott, yet has been denied what should be his only because the award in question happens to be handed out on the same night as the various player trophies.
John Lang has two Dally M Coach of the Year awards to his name, but it should be three.
Crowned as best coach in the competition in 1995 and again in 1999 while in charge of the Sharks, Lang would have been a locked-down, gold-plated guaranteed winner of the 2003 award after taking the Panthers from a 7-17 record and a 12th place finish out of 15 teams in 2002, to 18 wins, the Minor Premiership and then the Premiership itself in a famous 18-6 victory over the previous year’s winners, Sydney Roosters.
It was nothing short of remarkable.
The Panthers lost every one of their first eight games in 2002 after Lang had taken the reins at the club, yet just one season later they were doing a lap on the first Sunday in October with the Provan-Summons Trophy in hand.
The Dally M awards are presented each year in the lead-up to the Grand Final, so it’s not always a given that the premiership winning coach is also recognised as the Coach of the Year.
In fact, of the 42 Dally M trophies handed out to the coach voted as the best each season, only eight of them have won the premiership in that same year.
That’s right – eight.
The award, essentially, has been given to the coach who has been judged to have improved his team the most during the minor premiership from one season to the next.
Ivan Cleary won it in 2020, but wasn’t judged to have been the NRL’s best coach in either of the two following, premiership-winning, seasons.
Whatever the criteria, there’s zero doubt about who would have been Coach of the Year in 2003, and 20 years later it’s well beyond time that John Lang was given the recognition he fully deserves.
Warren Smith is one of the country’s leading sports broadcasters. He currently calls the NRL for Fox League.