Billy Moore has branded it a “disgrace” that NRL players can sign with rival clubs a year in advance as the league legend strongly advocated for trade windows.
There has been no fairytale finish for Wayne Bennett and Adam Reynolds after the South Sydney Rabbitohs fell to the Penrith Panthers in one of the great NRL grand finals in recent living memory.
Bennett, in his final game as Rabbitohs coach, was hoping to ride into the sunset with an eighth title as coach, while Adam Reynolds was seeking to win a title in his final game for the club before he makes the high-profile switch to the Brisbane Broncos next season.
The super coach was also attempting to become the first man to win a premiership with three different clubs, having led the Broncos to all six of their titles and the Dragons to the 2010 premiership.
But for all the talk of a potential fairytale title, instead it was the Penrith Panthers who capped off their 12 months of redemption by winning 14-12 in the first NRL grand final ever played at Suncorp Stadium.
It was also the second professional rugby league grand final in Australia to be played in Brisbane, following the 1997 Super League grand final, though it is mostly overshadowed by Darren Albert’s matchwinning heroics for the Knights in that year’s ARL grand final.
A devastating wave of coronavirus infections in New South Wales made it logistically impossible to stage the decider in a COVID-safe way at Stadium Australia, so therefore the call was made last month to stage the game at Suncorp Stadium for the first time.
Initially a full house was to have been permitted at the ground, but a COVID-19 scare in south-east Queensland saw the state government revert back to Stage 2 restrictions, with the permitted stadium capacity reduced to 75 per cent.
This meant that up to 13,000 fans would miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend an NRL grand final at the ground, but it was in the best interests of public health safety.
Those who were lucky enough to witness this historic occasion in Brisbane were treated to a beauty, with both the Panthers and Rabbitohs testing each other over the course of two exhilarating halves of football.
The Panthers were playing in their second consecutive grand final after having lost to the Melbourne Storm in last year’s decider, and that result would’ve been in the minds of the players as they sought to avoid becoming the first team since the Roosters in 2003-04 to lose consecutive finales.
The whole match was a war of attrition, with the lead no larger than six points.
Ivan Cleary’s side was first to strike when Bulldogs-bound centre Matt Burton scored in the 17th minute, but it didn’t take long for Souths to strike back when Cody Walker crossed four minutes later to level the scores at six-all.
A penalty goal to Nathan Cleary then saw the Panthers take an 8-6 lead into halftime, and the club’s supporters would have had every right to feel confident going into the second half – on the 19 previous occasions in which the club has led at halftime they have gone on to win.
But the Rabbitohs were not going to give up without a fight, and within five minutes of the resumption Adam Reynolds potted a penalty goal to level the scores at eight-all.
The defensive slog continued for the next 20 minutes, and with 15 minutes to go the Rabbitohs appeared to be out of trouble until Stephen Crichton took an intercept pass and ran nearly half of the length of the field to give the Panthers a 14-8 lead.
Just as they did in the first half, Souths would fire back, and a penalty over the halfway line was what they needed as Alex Johnston scored in the corner to peg the scores back to 14-12, leaving Reynolds with a difficult sideline conversion.
Unfortunately Reynolds would miss the conversion, and the Bunnies knew they would need to force a miracle in the less than five minutes of game time that remained.
With a minute on the clock the 31-year-old, who will leave Redfern as the highest point scorer in Souths history, attempted a two-point field goal in an effort to force extra time only for it to fall short, giving the Panthers one final set, during which they just had to hold onto the ball.
They hung on to clinch their third premiership title, winning 14-12 and ending an 18-year premiership drought.
By winning, Ivan and Nathan Cleary became the first father-son duo to win a premiership together since John and Martin Lang, coincidentally with the Panthers, in 2003.
Nathan Cleary was a deserved winner of the Clive Churchill Medal, with his smart kicking game often forcing dropouts from the opposition and gifting attacking opportunities to his talent-laden team eager to bury the demons of last year’s heartbreaking grand final loss to the Storm.
It was fourth time lucky for Ivan Cleary, who had previously lost on the game’s biggest stage on three occasions – first in his final NRL game as a player in the Warriors’ loss to the Roosters in 2002, then as the club’s coach in 2011 against Manly and of course with the Panthers last year.
He had returned to the club in 2019 eager to finish the job he started in 2012, having abruptly been sacked by then general manager Phil Gould in 2015 after they had regressed from shock preliminary finalists in 2014 to almost wooden spooners 12 months later.
His first season back at the foot of the mountains was a disappointing one as the club finished tenth on the ladder, but a new game plan and a win over then two-time defending premiers the Roosters at home set the platform for a phenomenal 2020 season in which they claimed the minor premiership.
However, they would find the Melbourne Storm a mountain too high to overcome in the decider, and it was at that point the club’s road to redemption began.
The Panthers won their first 12 matches of the season, and by the time they faced the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval in Round 13 they had won 33 of their past 36 matches dating back to the final round in 2019.
Without their Origin stars they proceeded to suffer a shock loss to the Tigers, during which Cleary was jeered by the pro-home crowd. That was then followed by a one-point loss to the Sharks at Kogarah Oval.
The mountain men proceeded to finish second on the ladder and appeared to be written off when they lost a brutal qualifying final encounter against the Rabbitohs by 16-10 in Townsville.
However, they would make the most of their second chance in September, first edging out the Eels by 8-6 in the semi-final before reversing last year’s grand final loss to the Storm with a 10-6 win in the preliminary final to advance to their fifth grand final.
And now, following their 14-12 win over the Rabbitohs in the grand final, the premiership will return to the foot of the mountains for the first time since 2003.
It is a tribute to the club’s legion supporters who are entering what is hopefully their final week of lockdown in greater Sydney, which forced the NRL decider to be played outside of the Harbour City for the first time.
For the Bunnies, it was a heartbreaking end to an otherwise successful season. Not only did Wayne Bennett and Adam Reynolds not get the farewell gift they deserved, but it was also not to be for Benji Marshall, who had won a premiership ring with the Wests Tigers in 2005.
A new era will dawn at the club, with Jason Demetriou having now officially taken the reins as head coach, while on the field they will be led by a new halfback, though who that is remains to be seen.
Whether Marshall, 36, plays on next year is also another issue.
The Panthers premiership victory brings to an end what will forever go down as one of the most significant and challenging seasons in over a century of rugby league history in Australia.
When a massive wave of coronavirus infections hit New South Wales in June, all ten state-based clubs were forced to evacuate to Queensland, where it was initially estimated that they’d be away for up to a month or two.
But as the COVID-19 situation in the state deteriorated, it became obvious that the players would be forced to spend the remainder of the season away from the comforts of their own beds, with no further premiership matches being played in the state after Round 17.
In the end it was the Penrith Panthers who emerged victorious, and it’s expected the club will continue its celebrations in Brisbane before they finally fly home to Sydney, which will awaken from more than 100 days in lockdown next week, to celebrate – in a COVID-safe way of course – with their supporters.
With vaccination rates continuing to steadily rise in Australia, it is expected that the NRL grand final will be returned to Stadium Australia next year, with border closures hopefully a thing of the past by then.
Congratulations to the Panthers on a premiership well deserved, and commiserations to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who will forever remain the pride of the league.