Nathan Cleary inspires Penrith to stunning NRL grand final triumph over Broncos

<span>Photograph: James Gourley/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Gourley/AAP

Penrith are the 2023 NRL premiers once again after a grand final for the ages that will long be remembered as one of the greatest deciders ever played. On a steamy in Sydney the Panthers became the first team in 40 years to win three straight premierships after staging a scarcely believable comeback, overcoming a 16-point deficit with 26 minutes to go at Accor Stadium.

Nathan Cleary, who won his second Clive Churchill medal, engineered the revival, setting up two tries and scoring another in one of the great individual performances. In a see-sawing game, Penrith looked all but out when Ezra Mam crossed for his third try and the premiership appeared destined to be heading to Brisbane for the first time in 17 years.

Related: NRL grand final 2023: Penrith Panthers defeat Brisbane Broncos – live reaction

But this great Panthers team – a dynasty that now ranks among the best in the history of the game – is never done. Cleary started it all with a superb break to set up Moses Leota and then finished it off with a solo try with just four minutes remaining.

In one of the most anticipated grand finals in a long time, the clash between a team looking to make history and a former powerhouse returning to the grandest of stages did not disappoint.

With the pre-game rendition of Tina Turner’s Simply The Best still hanging over a sold-out stadium and the traditional formalities out of the way, the match began like an Olympic 100-metre sprint, and the football was as fast as any State Of Origin affair.

It was the Panthers who got the first opportunity when Broncos centre Herbie Farnworth lost the ball in a brutish Liam Martin tackle coming out of his own half. Penrith looked certain to score twice – first through a backline move to Izack Tago and then off a Cleary crossfield kick – but a miraculous return from Kotoni Staggs that saw him escape the in-goal turned the tide.

Both defences were tested early. Both stood up. It was a portent for what was to come. Breakneck attack, ferocious hitting and desperate defence. Handling errors hurt the Broncos badly and eventually the resilient Broncos eventually gave in after 16 minutes when a short drop out was tapped back by Herbie Farnworth straight into the lap of Penrith hooker Mitch Kenny, who ran over untouched for just his second career try.

Mitch Kenny opens the scoring.
Mitch Kenny opens the scoring. Photograph: James Gourley/AAP

It was a brutal affair with injuries hitting both teams hard. A groin injury to Adam Reynolds 25 minutes left the playmaker in trouble but the tough Bronco stayed on, echoing grand final heroics of years gone by. Brisbane lost Tom Flegler early to an HIA and Penrith had Isaah Yeo off for 15 minutes under similar circumstances. Penrith No 6 Jarome Luai carried a shoulder injury into the game and survived just 50 minutes.

It was not until four minutes were left before the break that the Broncos received their first penalty and first full set camped in Penrith’s half. They took full advantage when Flegler crashed over under the post for a contentious try, sending Brisbane into half-time trailing by just two.

It was a remarkable scoreline considering Penrith’s dominance. The Panthers had 57% of possession and were running for 21 metres more a set, as well as dominating field position, so a two-point lead was hardly reflective of Penrith’s supremacy.

There was plenty of hype coming into the game surrounding Reece Walsh but a sub-par first half did not get any better just after the break with a shocking kick that delivered the Panthers a seven-tackle set. Brisbane remarkably hit the front four minutes after the break when livewire five-eighth Mam pushed off reserve prop Lindsay Smith and sped to the corner in a sublime individual effort. Reynolds swung the sideline conversion through for a 12-8 lead.

Ezra Mam speeds clear to score one of his three tries.
Ezra Mam speeds clear to score one of his three tries. Photograph: James Gourley/AAP

The tide had turned and Brisbane capitalised. Mam scored his second with another magical individual effort, scything through Panthers co-captains Cleary and Yeo before scooting away. Mam was not done there. A minute later he made it a hat-trick when Walsh fended off Tago after stepping past Cleary and sending a delirious Mam over for his third. The 20-year-old’s hat-trick came in an 11-minute burst that will live long in grand final lore. It was so very nearly decisive.

The Panthers did not throw the toys out of the cot though and a Cleary break set up behemoth prop Leota to reduce the margin to 10. Only the great teams believe in a situation with everything on the line and a hill so large but Penrith certainly did.

Cleary followed it up with a crucial 40/20 and Leota looked to be crashing over for a double on a last tackle crash play before a stunning tackle from Kobe Hetherington preserved the Broncos’ double-digit lead.

It didn’t last long. Stephen Crichton, in his final game for Penrith, scored for the fourth successive grand final with 13 minutes to go to set up a finish such a remarkable game deserved. The tide had turned and the Broncos entered the finale leading by just four.

A sublime kick from Crichton forced a dropout with eight minutes to go and the Panthers received a penalty under the posts when Reynolds’ dropout went out on the full but Brisbane held firm. Penrith continued to press. Crichton forced another dropout. Eventually the courageous Brisbane defence caved as Cleary burst through with just four minutes remaining. The conversion put Penrith in front for the first time since the 44th minute, and capped the greatest comeback in premiership history.