Nathan Cleary produced the greatest comeback in grand final history to give Penrith a historic NRL hat-trick with a 26-24 victory over Brisbane.
Trailing 24-8 with 18 minutes to play, Cleary scored two tries and scored one of his own in the final minutes to give the Panthers the lead and earn a second Clive Churchill Medal.
The most crucial of these came three minutes from time when Cleary came back through midfield to score and then took a two-point lead.
Penrith then held on for the final minutes, with Scott Sorensen intercepting a Reece Walsh offload to end Brisbane’s hopes of victory.
The victory surpasses Melbourne’s comeback from 14 points behind against St George Illawarra in 1999 and becomes the biggest ever victory in a decider.
The victory also allows Penrith to become one of the greatest teams of all time in rugby league, becoming the first team since Parramatta in 1983 to win three consecutive titles.
But this was not achieved in the NRL era or under a salary cap.
What makes Cleary’s effort even more remarkable is that he did so without five-eighth Jarome Luai, who succumbed to a shoulder injury 28 minutes from time.
The feat was enough for Luai to label his team “the best team in the world”, while speaking to ABC Sport after the match.
Penrith looked dejected early in the second half when Ezra Mam scored three tries in the space of 10 minutes to lift Brisbane from 8-6 down to a 24-8 lead.
All three tries came from distance, with Mam overtaking Lindsay Smith and Izack Tago for her first and Isaah Yeo and Cleary for her next.
Walsh then inserted himself into the play, passing Cleary, pushing back Tago and setting up Mam for his hat-trick.
But after his two defensive errors, Cleary made up for it by organizing a Penrith fightback.
With 18 minutes remaining, Cleary crossed the Broncos line and replaced Moses Leota, reducing the deficit to 10.
From the next set, he produced a perfect 40-20, before sending Stephen Crichton a few moments later following an error by Pat Carrigan.
Then, just when Brisbane looked set to hold on, Cleary broke through a broken defensive line to give the Panthers their fifth title and by far their most miraculous.
Penrith had earlier dominated the first half, but only had an 8-6 half-time lead when Thomas Flegler crashed over for Brisbane just at half-time.
Despite their charge, the defeat means the Broncos’ premiership drought will extend to at least an 18th season.
Earlier, the Knights beat the Titans 24-18 to win back-to-back women’s premierships.
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Good night and what a night everyone
Sport can be both cruel and beautiful and in these competitions it always is.
These Broncos didn’t deserve this, but these Panthers absolutely deserved what they got.
There’s no draw on the last day of the season, so someone goes home in tears.
If Penrith didn’t lose this one, they may never lose again. For Brisbane, it will either be their make or their loss.
Either way, we’re lucky to have been able to witness sports history tonight.
Thanks for sticking with me to watch. I’ll see you next time!
Deserving champions enter rugby league pantheon
One is hard, two is brutal, three in a row was supposed to be impossible.
This hasn’t been done since the Parramatta Eels in 1981, 1982 and 1983.
Some teams that didn’t make it:
- Great Brisbane teams of the 1990s and 2000s
- Canberra in the 1980s and 1990s
- The Bulldogs of the 80s
- The legal and illegal sides of the Melbourne Storm and their manly rivals
- Roosters by Trent Robinson
Luke Lewis, who won a premiership with Penrith in 2003 and was a Clive Churchill Medalist with Cronulla in 2016, told ABC Sport he could see this team winning three more. And honestly, you wouldn’t bet against them at this point.
They are young, athletic, talented and, as tonight proved again, as mentally tough as anyone.
They almost did that, but stronger in the 2020 grand final, but tonight, with three more years of experience (and bruises), they pulled it off this time.
Excuse me if this is all gibberish. I know it’s my job, but I’m still a little in shock.
The match winning moment
Sure, he was everywhere the whole way back, but it was THE moment.
Strength, speed, footwork, skill and most importantly, mental toughness and resilience. He NEVER believes he’s beaten and when he plays like that, he never is.
Such a “nasty game”
For the second time in their last two grand finals, the Brisbane Broncos are broken.
“It’s still difficult to understand where we were, but that’s rugby league,” Broncos coach Kevin Walters told ABC Sport.
“It can be a nasty game.
“It shouldn’t end like this sometimes.”
In a heartbreaking contrast to the Cleary boys, Kevin Walters must retrieve his distraught son, Billy.
Ivan Cleary at a loss for words
Panthers coach says he “can’t express” exactly how it happened.
“All the training, all the sacrifices and belief. I don’t know how it happened. We were in all kinds of situations,” he told ABC Sport.
“They looked every bit as athletic and dangerous as we hoped.
“It didn’t look great. Every time they had the ball, they looked 10 feet tall.
“Sometimes the closer you get to the end, the more you can start to worry about the outcome and maybe that’s what they did.”
Nathan Cleary. That’s it, that’s the title.
This mountain of a man, this sports legend at only 25 years old has won the Clive Churchill Medal for the second timeadding to his 2021 honor.
Even, and especially, with Jarome Luai sidelined and Isaah Yeo out for 15 minutes with an HIA, Nathan Cleary grabbed this team and said “come with me”. And that’s what they did.
He finished with one try (the match winner), two assists, 162 meters of running, four goals, four tackle breaks, two line breaks and 660 meters of kicking.
The end of this match might be the greatest 25 minute stretch of individual rugby league football I have ever seen.
“Toughest game I’ve ever played,” Cleary said at the podium, praising the Broncos and Ezra Mam in particular, calling them “monsters.”
“They are by far the most dangerous team in the NRL,” he told ABC Sport.
“Ezra and Reece made me look stupid on several occasions.”
“Best team in the world”
Despite the arguments over the title of “world champion”, one cannot dispute Jarome Luai’s proclamation.
“The best team in the world,” Luai told ABC Sport.
Definitely in the NRL right now, and maybe never.
“No one gave them a chance, but we believed in it on the sidelines,” Luai says.
“I still can’t believe it.”
THE PENRITH PANTHERS ARE FIRST IN THE NRL THREE TIMES!!!
What a truly phenomenal return from this incredible team.
The score was 24-8 when Ezra Mam scored his third try in the 54th minute. And yet, it felt like the Broncos gave them too much time.
And so it turned out.
Even, in fact especially, with Jarome Luai sidelined by injury and Isaah Yeo, Nathan Cleary this time grabbed the scruff of the neck and said “come with me” to triple the glory of the premiership.
The Brisbane Broncos are on the wrong end of another heartbreaker in another of the greatest finals of all time that they will absolutely never want to hear about again.
80′ Reece Walsh arrives at the Panthers! It will be three in a row!!
80′ Penrith must prevent Brisbane from covering 80 meters in the final 58 seconds
79′ Brisbane needs a miracle
They have to miss the kickoff, which has been fraught with difficulties so far tonight.
Penrith, come together! They will truck it in and start for a long time.
NATHAN CLEARY IS THE HERO OF PENRITH!!!
Nothing happened when the ball went to the short side, but he lifted his opposite number Adam Reynolds, then Billy Walters, then Reece Walsh to get under the posts.
Nathan Cleary will convert just in front of the uprights.
Penrith lead 26-24 with less than two minutes to play.
76′ Another abandonment
Brisbane finally get one down the field, but Penrith pounces 30m out.
75′ It’s incredibly tense.
Reynolds tries the 40/20 in the fourth but Brian To’o is aware of it. Penrith attack from their own 30m line.
74′ Cobbo to the rescue
The Broncos rush Penrith with their defense, and it ends with Crichton trying to play under pressure again, and this time Cobbo pulls off a superb reflex.
But the Broncos still have a mountain of work to get out of danger.
73′ The Broncos miss another abandonment
This time, it’s complete! Nathan Cleary with another clutch catch with his foot in touch.
72′ The Broncos have another abandonment
Stephen Crichton lands a brilliant chip and he and Sunia Turuva (with a few useful knees) pin Reece Walsh in the in-goal for a forced retirement
They can’t be overdrawn anymore, can they?
71′ Reece Walsh is a momentum machine in his own right
He mowed them down halfway and got the Broncos going.
But the fifth tackle option falls apart.
The Storm led 26-0 in the 52nd minute in 2020 when the Panthers began their comeback in that one.
They ended up losing 26-20, but this time the equation is simpler and they have more time.
STEPHEN CRICHTON IS SPECIAL!! THE RETURN IS LONG!!!
Speed and power from the Penrith center, coming out of Kotoni Staggs, holding him off and finishing through an admittedly poor covering tackle from Reece Walsh.
Nathan Cleary converts. The Broncos still lead, but it’s a tough stretch at 24-20.
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