Penrith’s come-from-behind NRL grand final win over Brisbane, to notch an outstanding three-peat, had to be seen to believed.
In the history of rugby league there has arguably been no better fightback in a major final then 16 points down with 17 minutes left. The last rites had been given for the Chocolate Soldiers and they looked dead and buried. They were gone, and then suddenly they were not.
The comeback was special. It was historic. It was unbelievable. It was pure magic.
But looking back over that magical 80 minutes you can only say how the Broncos were their own worst enemies. How their mistakes, combined with some Panther brilliance, was the architect of their own downfall.
The Broncs’ drop-outs were utterly awful. First there was the first half short one, which Herbie Farnworth batted straight into Mitch Kenny’s arms for the easiest of tries. Then there was the second half one, out straight on the full which Nathan Cleary spectacularly took.
At 24-8 in the 62nd minute Cleary takes a run, Kurt Capewell slips off a tackle and he finds Moses Leota in support for a try. 24-14, Penrith have hope.
In the 64th minute Cleary, who was Joey Johnsesque at Allianz, kicks an incredible 40-20. Brisbane’s defence though is up to scratch, they keep the Panthers out, but then Patrick Carrigan knocks the ball on. Another gift for the defending champions.
They don’t waste this opportunity and on the next set the sensational Stephen Crichton beats three players on his way to the try-line. 24-20 and Cleary makes no mistake with his conversion from the sideline.
Then comes the hectic final 10 minutes with the match in the balance. At first it seemed that Brisbane would hold on. But then in the 71st minute an excellent kick chase from Crichton forces a goal-line dropout. Walsh was in the wrong spot when the kick was made, and Penrith pounced.
Adam Reynolds then stuffed the dropout, and the champs were camped on Brisbane’s try-line once more. Again, the Queensland side managed to keep the Panthers at bay with some drastic, heroic defence. But all this tackling was leaving the Broncos’ tanks dry.
The clock ticks away and in the 76th minute, on the fourth tackle, Kenny fakes right and takes what looks to the be wrong option, passing to Cleary who is running to his left.
At that point Cleary has two teammates outside of him but there is no overlap, Brisbane have five players in front of him and have that side well covered. It’s a 5-3 split in the Broncos’ favour.
There is nothing on.
However, Cleary notices a tiny half-gap to the right of the ruck, which Billy Walters and Jordan Riki are moving to try and fill, but not quick enough.
Cleary steps back to the right, beats an attempted effort from Reynolds, gets right around Walters and is too quick for Rikki. Walters and Rikki don’t even lay a finger on him, and Walsh makes a last-ditch dive in vain to try and stop him as he strolls over the line.
Cleary scores. Job done. Goodnight. Well, Cleary still has to convert from right in front, but of course he duly does. 26-24. Allianz Stadium erupts. History is made.
It’s hard to blame the Broncos in the final stages considering the speed and intensity of the match. They were spent. They were out on their feet. And they faced a champion opponent who just would not lie down.
In 80 minutes any doubts over the greatness of the Penrith halfback have evaporated. It was a performance that Johns, Jonathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and any elite playmaker from any and all eras would be in awe of.
Nathan Cleary take a bow. Crichton, Dylan Edwards and all the rest, take a bow.
This NRL grand final? Simply the best.
The comeback? Simply the best.
This Penrith team? Since Parramatta in the early 1980s, simply the best.
Cleary? Simply one of the best. And considering he’s only 25, the best may still be yet to come.