History three-peats itself as Cleary masterclass guides Panthers to glory

Photo – NRL

Panthers superstar Nathan Cleary has produced the finest performance of his career to lead the premiers to a remarkable 26-24 triumph over the Broncos in an epic decider at Accor Stadium.

Trailing by 16 points after an Ezra Mam hat-trick had put the Broncos on track for their first title in 17 years, Cleary took the game by the scruff of the neck to ensure the Panthers would emulate the Eels of 1981-82-83 with a three-peat.

Cleary put Moses Leota over for a try with 17 minutes to play and then came up with a 40-20 before scoring the final try in the 77th minute to leave the Broncos shellshocked and the Panthers faithful in raptures.

The champion No.7 then capped his night by becoming just the third player to win the Clive Churchill Medal for a second time, joining Brad Clyde and Billy Slater in that exclusive club.

In a frantic opening it was Broncos centre Herbie Farnworth coming up with an early error to hand the Panthers field position but a brilliant bomb defusal by Kotoni Staggs helped his team come away.

Broncos hooker Billy Walters then produced a mammoth 40-20 kick out of dummy half but the opportunity was lost when the ball was spun left and Jesse Arthars slipped and went into touch.

When Selwyn Cobbo dropped the ball deep in his own territory the Broncos again found themselves under the pump but their defence again stood strong until a poor play-the-ball by Staggs in the 16th minute invited the Panthers into the red zone and first points followed in bizarre fashion.

A short dropout by Adam Reynolds in the 18th minute was batted back by Farnworth and rather than his Broncos teammates collecting the ball it was Panthers hooker Mitch Kenny who pounced for his first try of the season. Stephen Crichton converted to give the premiers a 6-0 lead.

When Reece Walsh was caught in goal and Reynolds’ dropout failed to go 10 metres, the Panthers extended their lead to 8-0 courtesy of a Cleary penalty goal.

Come the 39th minute and the Broncos struck back when Thomas Flegler powered over from close range having only returned to the field three minutes after passing a head injury assessment. Reynolds converted to make the half-time score 8-6 to the Panthers.

On the back of a couple of enormous charges from Flegler the Broncos made the ideal start to the second half when Mam split the Panthers open and raced 50 metres to score wide out. Reynolds converted to give the Broncos a 12-8 lead.

After Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai left the field holding his shoulder in the 52nd minute the Broncos extended their lead through a second try for Mam, who put some fancy footwork on Isaah Yeo and Cleary and raced away to make it 18-8 to Kevin Walters’ men.

Two minutes later Mam had a hat-trick after Walsh sliced through and found the No.6 in support as the Broncos turned the game on its head with a stunning burst.

Trailing by 16 points the Panthers hit back when Cleary found a hole and set up Leota for a try in the 63rd minute before the champion No.7 came up with a 40-20 to set up another opportunity but a superb last-ditch tackle by Kobe Hetherington on Leota kept Brisbane’s line intact.

A mistake by Pat Carrigan then opened the door for the Panthers again and Crichton made it four tries in four consecutive grand finals and the premiers were back in business, trailing 24-20.

When Reynolds put a dropout out on the full in the 72nd minute the Panthers had a shot at levelling up but Cobbo plucked a Crichton kick out of the air and the danger was averted.

With the crowd of 81,947 at fever pitch the Panthers remarkably hit the front 26-24 when Cleary took the line on from 10 metres out and put the ball down for the four-pointer that capped the greatest night of his career.

The Panthers’ comeback from 16 points down was the biggest in grand final history, eclipsing the Storm’s effort to come from 14-0 down to win the 1999 decider against the Dragons.

Having steadied the ship in the shadow of half-time with a try to Thomas Flegler, the Broncos hit the front in the 45th minute when Ezra Mam produced one of the great grand final tries. Mam took the ball on halfway and left Lindsay Smith and Tago in his wake with some dazzling footwork before out-pacing Dylan Edwards on the run to the line. The 20-year-old then added a second and a third in the space to complete a hat-trick in the space of 10 sizzling minutes.

“I’ve never felt so under the pump in a game as we were in that second half tonight. I thought the Broncos deserved to be in the lead but over the course of the last few years we have built enough belief that when we get our game on, good things will happen, but I was a little worried midway through the second half. One thing I never doubt is the boys’ ability to keep fighting and there was just enough time to make them get nervous. I can’t remember the last time we had to come back like that and win. The 2020 grand final comes to mind. We ran out of time that night but tonight was pretty amazing. I thought Nathan looked really clear and the lessons he has learned gave him the clarity to be able to go ‘now it is backs to the wall, now I’m going to go after it’,” said Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.

“There’s no emotion in the sheds, it’s very quiet. It’s hard to get your head around what actually happened. I feel for all the players in there that gave so much but it wasn’t enough in the end. I think the whole stadium thought we had done enough [when Ezra scored his hat-trick]. Right now it’s a pretty empty feeling. I watched the AFL grand final yesterday and thought that’s not a nice way to lose [for the Lions] and here we are sitting here in the same situation. That second period there, for 20 minutes, that’s the Broncos that I know and that’s where we’ll get to, we’ll do that for 80, but we’re not there yet. But when we do we’ll win premierships and that’s what it’s about. We’re not there yet but we’re a lot closer now than we were 12 months ago.” said Broncos coach Kevin Walters

Meanwhile, Penrith co-captain Nathan Cleary has produced a stunning performance to clinch the 2023 Clive Churchill Medal, becoming just the third player to win the award on multiple occasions.

Cleary, who scored the match-winning try and landed the match-winning conversion as Penrith roared back from a 16-point deficit – chalking up their third consecutive title courtesy of the biggest comeback in NRL grand final history.

The superstar halfback joins Billy Slater (2009 and 2017) and Bradley Clyde (1991 and 1993) as the only players to win multiple Clive Churchill medals.

Cleary finished the game with 12 points – courtesy of a try and four goals from as many attempts – while also adding a linebreak and a try assist for Moses Leota.

Only fullback Dylan Edwards (26 runs for 296 metres) had more runs than Cleary, whose 21 carries accounted for 162 metres. He also added four tackle breaks, three offloads, 660 kick metres from 21 kicks and 18 tackles.

“It honestly doesn’t feel real right now,” Cleary said in accepting the medal.

“I can’t wait for it to set in. 

“That’s the hardest game I’ve ever played.

“To our boys, it’s nothing but love. We worked so hard for this and we’re still just getting started,” he said

A host of stars from both sides will front in the Pacific Championship Tests which kick off on 14 October with the Kangaroos facing Samoa in Townsville. For those not playing internationals there’s a well-earned break before the 2024 pre-season launches in November.