These are the rookies to watch from the Warriors, Cowboys, Eels and Panthers in 2022.
Family. It was there in the joy of of Penrith’s man of the match Nathan Cleary and his coach dad Ivan.
It was there as Brian To’o went down on bended knee to his girlfriend Moesha Crichton-Ropati, presenting her an engagement ring moments before walking up to collect a premiership ring for himself.
It was there in the jubiliant scenes outside Jarome Luai’s house in Mount Druitt, Western Sydney, and there in the history of the Panthers team – a brotherhood where 13 of the 17 have progressed from the academy.
“It’s what we spoke about when we came together,” Nathan said of his special bond with his father. “We had one rough year then the heartbreak of last year. It’s just the best, doing it with him.”
Brad Fittler said he couldn’t imagine Ivan’s pride in his son.
“Your kids get a sticker at school and you almost cry,” Fittler joked.
“It’s surreal,” said Ivan Cleary. “It’s hard to put in words. I coach him every day and when he’s your son as well, and the Clive Churchill? I couldn’t have written that story, it’s pretty cool.”
Thirteen of Penrith’s 17 man squad had come through the club’s academy.
“That’s what makes it special,” said Nathan Cleary. “Doing it alongside my brothers I’ve grown up with – we’re like a family.”
Nleary came out on top in a bitter running battle with Cody Walker and the pair featured in the two biggest moments of the tense battle in a spiteful head-to-head conflict.
Walker scored Souths’ first half try by storming straight through the Origin halfback’s attempted tackle, sending him flying and leaving him reeling.
But revenge was sweet when Walker threw the crucial intercept that allowed Stephen Crichton to cross for the match winner.
As Crichton streamed away to score Cleary gave Walker a gobful, the pair grabbing at each other and trading insults.
“I’ve been dreaming of this moment all my life,” said Cleary, who won the Clive Churchill Medal for man of the match.
“This is for you guys back in Penrith – can’t wait to party with you.”
Cleary said last season’s loss, and being written off after defeat in the opening week of the finals, had fuelled this win.
“Losing a Grand Final is a different kind of hurt,” said Cleary. “That makes this so special, we came back and won it the hard way, kept turning up for each other.”
HOLYYYYY SNATCH ????
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“He was fantastic,” said Peter Sterling, calling his last Grand Final for Channel Nine. “He kicked South Sydney into submission.
“He got it right in the first 40 minutes. These Grand Finals are won with pressure. Apart from the missed tackle for Walker’s try he was pretty much faultless.
“You need a No.7 to handle these situations and he got everything so right. He’s 23 and still learning the game but he’s been through so much – gone through Origin series as a young player with so much expectation. He’s a complete footballer.”
Walker did get one more chance to have a say, and was integral in the bulid up to Alex Johnston’s 30th try of the season.
Souths’ halfback Adam Reynolds, who is leaving the club for the Brisbane Broncos, was narrowly wide with his attempted conversion.
“What a gripping game,” said Phil Gould. “South Sydney were so brave, they didn’t have anything go their way all night.
“The intercept was the difference between the two teams.”
Reynolds was downcast after missing the chance to level the scores.
“We hung in there all night,” Reynolds said. “We had a chance at the end and didn’t come up with it.
“We wanted to apply more pressure on them, they’re a quality side but we found it tough to get out of our end. We kept fighting and fighting to the end.”
Walker was also crushed: “There some pretty big moments and one of those was me throwing the intercept and we lost by two points. It’s hard man.”