Rugby League

History three-peats itself as Cleary masterclass gets Panthers home

October 1, 2023 10:38 pm

[Source: Panthers/Twitter]

Panthers superstar Nathan Cleary has produced the finest performance of his career to lead the premiers to a remarkable 26-24 triumph over the Broncos in an epic decider at Accor Stadium.

Trailing by 16 points after an Ezra Mam hat-trick had put the Broncos on track for glory, Cleary took the game by the scruff of the neck to ensure the Panthers would emulate the Eels of 1981-82-83 with a three-peat.

Cleary put Moses Leota over for a try and then came up with a 40-20 before scoring the final try in the 77th minute.

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In a frantic opening it was Broncos centre Herbie Farnworth coming up with an early error to hand the Panthers field position but a brilliant bomb defusal by Kotoni Staggs helped his team come away.

Broncos hooker Billy Walters then produced a mammoth 40-20 kick out of dummy half but the opportunity was lost when the ball was spun left and Jesse Arthars slipped and went into touch.

When Selwyn Cobbo dropped the ball deep in his own territory the Broncos again found themselves under the pump but their defence again stood strong until a poor play-the-ball by Staggs in the 16th minute invited the Panthers into the red zone and first points followed in bizarre fashion.

A short dropout by Adam Reynolds in the 18th minute was batted back by Farnworth and rather than his Broncos teammates collecting the ball it was Panthers hooker Mitch Kenny who pounced for his first try of the season. Stephen Crichton converted to give the premiers a 6-0 lead.

When Reece Walsh was caught in goal and Reynolds’ dropout failed to go 10 metres, the Panthers extended their lead to 8-0 courtesy of a Cleary penalty goal.

Come the 39th minute and the Broncos struck back when Thomas Flegler powered over from close range having only returned to the field three minutes after passing a head injury assessment. Reynolds converted to make the half-time score 8-6 to the Panthers.

On the back of a couple of enormous charges from Flegler the Broncos made the ideal start to the second half when Ezra Mam split the Panthers open and raced 50 metres to score wide out. Reynolds converted to give the Broncos a 12-8 lead.

After Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai left the field holding his shoulder in the 52nd minute the Broncos extended their lead through a second try for Mam, who put some fancy footwork on Isaah Yeo and Cleary and raced away to make it 18-8 to Kevin Walters’ men.

Two minutes later Mam had a hat-trick after Reece Walsh sliced through and found the No.6 in support as the Broncos turned the game on its head with a stunning burst.

Trailing by 16 points the Panthers hit back when Cleary found a hole and set up Leota for a try in the 63rd minute before the champion No.7 came up with a 40-20 to set up another opportunity but a superb last-ditch tackle by Kobe Hetherington on Leota kept Brisbane’s line intact.

A mistake by Pat Carrigan then opened the door for the Panthers again and Crichton made it four tries in four consecutive grand finals and the premiers were back in business, trailing 24-20.

When Reynolds put a dropout out on the full in the 72nd minute the Panthers had a shot at levelling up but Selwyn Cobbo plucked a Crichton kick out of the air and the danger was averted.

With the crowd of 81,947 at fever pitch the Panthers remarkably hit the front 26-24 when Cleary took the line on from 10 metres out and put the ball down for the four-pointer that capped the greatest night of his career.

The Panthers’ comeback from 16 points down was the biggest in grand final history, eclipsing the Storm’s effort to come from 14-0 down to win the 1999 decider against the Dragons.