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Opinion

NRL Grand Final Talking Points: Three-peat makes Panthers best since '80s Eels, Broncos can bounce back from painful loss

1st October, 2023
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1st October, 2023
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There have been some great teams since Parramatta’s golden era of the early 1980s but what this Penrith team has achieved puts them at the top of the list. 

To win a premiership is hard enough and to defend your title is extremely tough so to rack up three on the trot is a monumental achievement. 

You need everything to be running perfectly to be at the top for consecutive years. There have been several teams that have been dominant for stretches in the past few decades but to make four Grand Finals in a row and to win three of them on the trot is exceptional.

And they had to do it the hard way on Grand Final night because the Broncos came at them with a game plan which rattled them and was nearly enough to cause a massive upset. 

Nathan Cleary scores the match-winning try. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Their coach Ivan Cleary now sits in illustrious company and has done an incredible job to prepare his team so well consistently to achieve a rare (and well deserved) triple Premiership at his beloved Panthers.

Nathan Cleary’s performance in the last 20 minutes was as good as anyone I’ve seen in a Grand Final. 

Brisbane made just one error when they threw a stray pass failed to tidy up the loose ball and that was all the Panthers needed. 

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A few plays later Cleary was putting Moses Leota over for a try and from there, the momentum was all Penrith. 

That can happen these days in any NRL game. Once the tide turns, it can overwhelm you once the play-the-ball speed accelerates and in a Grand Final, it can cost you the trophy.

The Broncos didn’t actually do too much wrong in that last stretch – there were a few misses in defence and Reece Walsh was probably a fraction out of position at fullback on a couple of occasions but they are a young team and they’ll learn from the pain of that defeat.

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)

Kevin Walters did a remarkable job to transform the Broncos into a clinical and physical side all season after they bombed out to miss the finals last year. 

He will have to do even better this time around to get them firing again in 2024 after a loss like this. I played for Canterbury the last time that legendary Parramatta team won a Grand Final in 1986 and 37 years later, it’s still hard to get over what might have been. 

If someone had said back then that ‘86 would be the last time Parra would win a premiership for decades, they would have been laughed at but that can happen. It was the same situation with Souths in the early 1970s until 2014 and Brisbane are now up to 17 years since they last won one.

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From where they’ve come from three years ago when they collected the wooden spoon to now being runners-up is a testament to Kevvie’s effort to unite the club.

They are definitely getting closer to a title, as hard as it is to digest a loss like that one. 

The first half pretty much went to script. Penrith were playing their style of game and the pressure they created showed when Adam Reynolds went for a short drop-out because his team had been tackling on their line for a sustained period.

I’m a fan of the tactic when it’s executed well but Herbie Farnworth didn’t need to bat it back. Without stating the obvious, he should have caught it because there was no one else there for Penrith challenging him.

When it’s a restart from halfway, you can bat it back but not on your own line. 

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)

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Brisbane did well to stay in the contest in the first half and then Ezra Mam stepped up with his three tries. 

I don’t reckon we’ve seen a GF swing like that for a long time.

The Broncos set it up with direct running and then he did his thing to step past some fatigued defenders. 

They were outstanding in their approach with their ball movement and their offloads, which has been their trademark all year.

If they’d got it right for another five minutes, they’d still be celebrating now.

Penrith looked out of sorts but they have that understanding of how to play a situation like that when you’re down by 16. Cleary has been in enough finals and Origin games to sum up the state of play.

Nathan Cleary celebrates with teammates. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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Once you get into that mindset, the game can stand still for the other time. Your line speed stops and you’re not quite where you should be defensively.

The outstanding factor in Grand Finals is you’ve got to have an Origin or Test standard halfback and that’s where Cleary sits. He’s the Kangaroos halfback and he is a tremendous leader on and off the field. 

You’ve got to give him huge credit for the way he played when it looked like the third premiership was going to be a bridge too far.

As much as Brisbane are likely to be in title contention again next year, Penrith aren’t going away either.

Both teams have got their big guns signed up long term so this could be the start of a fierce rivalry over the next few years. 

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