Penrith Panthers star Nathan Cleary etched his name into NRL folklore with a devastating performance in the Grand Final over the weekend.
The Panthers went into the game against Brisbane Broncos as the bookmakers’ favourites to win the prestigious title for the third season in a row.
They looked on course to get their hands on the trophy after establishing an 8-6 lead at half-time, but the Broncos turned the game on its head after the break.
Ezra Mam’s blistering hat-trick put the Broncos 24-8 ahead and on course to defy the pre-match odds. Punters wagering on the game would have been hard-pushed to predict what happened next.
The Broncos were long odds-on in the NRL betting holding a 16-point lead, but in-play bettors who kept the faith with the Panthers were richly rewarded as Cleary worked his magic.
He set up tries for Moses Leota and Stephen Crichton to narrow the gap on the Broncos, before producing a devastating burst to cross for another score with three minutes remaining.
Clearly kept his nerve to bag the conversion to make it 26-24 and send the Panthers fans wild with delight. His efforts saw him become the third player to win the Clive Churchill Medal for a second time, joining Billy Slater and Brad Clyde in that elite club.
The Panthers’ comeback was the biggest in Grand Final History and cemented their status as one of the best teams ever grace a rugby league pitch. Head coach Ivan Clearly was full of admiration for the way his team refused to buckle despite being so fae behind.
“I’ve never felt so under the pump in a game as we were in that second half,” Cleary said. “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’.”
The Panthers are just the eighth team in history to win three straight premierships, and the first since Parramatta Eels in 1983.However, they are the first side to achieve the feat during the NRL era or under salary cap rules – a factor which many pundits think makes them the greatest of all time.
They were pushed to the limit by the Broncos, who can count themselves extremely unfortunate not to have ended their 17-year wait to win the NRL title.
While Cleary was reluctant to suggest his team deserve the greatest team of all-time tag, he was in awe of what his players achieved in Sydney.
“There was that great Parramatta side, but that wasn’t the NRL-era either,” Cleary added.
“But things were different, it was just pretty much the Sydney competition back then. And I say that without trying to take anything away from what they did.
“We’re not here to try and explain where we sit in history. I think we will be able to reflect in the next few days, it’s a pretty remarkable achievement. It’s totally surreal. I don’t know how to explain it.”
The Panthers will now set about trying to make it four-in-a-row in 2024 and have been installed as the bookmakers’ favourites to get the job done.