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Cleary's immortal display inspires Panthers to pull off record comeback win for three-peat and break Broncos hearts

1st October, 2023
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1st October, 2023
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Penrith have etched their name into the NRL history books by surging back from a 16-point deficit to become the first team since the 1983 Parramatta Eels to win three straight premierships. 

They looked down and out after an Ezra Mam three-try blitz inside 10 minutes early in the second half but Nathan Cleary inspired a monumental resurgence to break Brisbane’s hearts 26-24 to break the record for biggest comeback of 14 set by Melbourne against St George Illawarra in 1999.

Cleary engineered the 15-minute turnaround by setting up the first two tries and then standing up in the biggest moment in the 77th minute to beat three defenders for the match-winner.

Immortal halfback Andrew Johns said Cleary’s masterclass was greater than the likes of Peter Sterling, Steve Mortimer, Allan Langer and himself. “That performance by Nathan Cleary, the last 20 minutes of that game is without doubt the best performance by a halfback in a Grand Final. What a game from a champion halfback.”

Cleary was typically modest and was rewarded with the Clive Churchill Medal. “It doesn’t feel real. Honestly it feels like a dream,” he said. “We were down but never out. We keep fighting. That’s our mentality.

“I think the 20 minutes before was the worst I’ve ever played. It was nice to finish on a high.”

Co-captain Isaah Yeo made the case that Cleary, at 25, has done more than any other half in history.

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“I just feel like what he’s done in this space of time, there’s been no other half who has done it,” he said. “I reckon if you put his statistics up against absolutely any other halfback that’s played to this point, at 25, no one has done what he’s done. He put the team on his back and won us our third Grand Final in a row.”

Cleary said he used the pain of the 2020 Grand Final loss to Melbourne to motivate himself when the Panthers were swamped by the Storm before mounting a late comeback which fell short.

The Panthers will start favourites for next year’s premiership and probably the one after that at this rate with a nucleus of stars who are in their prime and signed up long term. 

Kevin Walters instructed his Broncos to take the fight to the Panthers and the high-risk strategy of throwing the ball around looked like it would work before Ivan Cleary’s clinical side defied history with their late revival. 

NBA legend Scottie Pippen was at Accor Stadium as part of his ambassadorial role with the NBL – the Hall of Famer won a hat-trick of titles twice with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, which turned out to be a positive omen for the Panthers. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: Panthers celebrate with the trophy during the 2023 NRL Grand Final match between Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

“I’ve never felt so under the pump in a game for ages as we were in that second half,” Ivan Cleary said. “The Broncos probably had the better of at least the middle part of the game and deserved to be in that lead. Over the course of the last few years we’ve won enough games and built enough belief that when we get our momentum going, good things will happen.

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“But I must say I was a little worried. They were just zinging it around the whole game but once we got some possession we had a chance.”

Brisbane weren’t going to die wondering as they threw the ball around in the opening exchanges looking to land an early body blow. 

A Billy Walters 40/20 in the fifth minute came unstuck when Herbie Farnworth’s errant last pass led to Jesse Arthars sliding over the sideline.

The high-risk strategy didn’t lead to points and Penrith dominated field position, but when Nathan Cleary’s high kick was claimed by Kotoni Staggs it looked like the Broncos could breathe a sigh of relief.

But after Staggs botched the play-the-ball, Adam Reynolds tried a short drop-out which Farnworth flew high to knock backwards but the ball bounced perfectly for Mitch Kenny and the Penrith hooker did his best 1991 Royce Simmons impression to collect the crumbs unmarked.

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Kenny’s first try of the season will go down as the easiest and definitely the most important of his career. 

After their first 11 sets each, Penrith had not made an error while the Broncos had fumbled six times. 

Brisbane’s collective hearts were in their mouths when Reynolds was forced into an impromptu display of the splits by a Scott Sorensen tackle but after receiving treatment he was able to stay on the field. 

His line drop-out woes continued in the 29th minute when his short looping kick landed over the sideline for Cleary to make it 8-0 from right in front.

Facing the prospect of Penrith romping away, the Broncos kicked into gear to not only stem the bleeding but draw first blood of their own just before half-time through prop Tom Flegler, who barged over off a Tyson Smoothy pass from short range.

There was some doubt about whether he managed to get the ball on the chalk in an Isaah Yeo tackle, first-time Grand Final referee Adam Gee was in perfect position to give it the green light without a bunker referral.

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“Psychologically for the Broncos they were 8-0 down at halftime, now it’s going to be 8-6. Huge,” said Maroons coach Billy Slater on Nine commentary. 

The momentum stalled slightly after the first set in the second half when Walsh booted the ball way too deep for Dylan Edwards to claim a seven-tackle set. “You can’t get that wrong in big games,” scolded Immortal halfback Andrew Johns on Nine.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: Ezra Mam of the Broncos celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the 2023 NRL Grand Final match between Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Ezra Mam celebrates with teammates. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Walsh made up for his dud kick with a spectacular catch to defuse the Cleary bomb which towered into the night sky at the end of the ensuing set. 

Brisbane surged to the lead for the first time a short time later when Ezra Mam scorched across the turf for a superb individual try after stepping past Lindsay Smith near halfway and outsprinting Edwards to the corner for a 12-8 advantage after Reynolds unleashed his best kick of the night with his conversion from the sideline.

While Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai had been largely ineffectual and was replaced in the 52nd minute after aggravating his shoulder injury, his opposite number peeled off a rare Grand Final hat-trick within the space of 10 minutes. 

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Mam capitalised on a Haas offload to sidestep Yeo and break free of Cleary’s tackle to slide over for an 18-8 lead and then backed up Walsh’s first line break of the night to put Brisbane up by 16. 

“I’ve never seen the Penrith defence look so fatigued,” Brad Fittler said on Nine after Mam’s second try. “Normally you’ve got one brick wall of black jerseys.”

It proved prophetic with the Broncos cracking the wall again on their next set from the restart.

With the game slipping away, Cleary sparked a try to Moses Leota in the 64th minute to cut the deficit to 10.

On the back of Cleary 40/20, the Panthers showed their championship quality by spreading the ball to Stephen Crichton with the Bulldogs-bound centre palming off Staggs to make it 24-20.

Cleary then landed the knockout blow with a try from close range which completed the comeback for the ages with three minutes remaining.

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