Panthers win NRL grand final as Nathan Cleary masterclass stuns Brisbane Broncos

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Nathan Cleary has confirmed his greatness and the Penrith Panthers’ dominance, putting on a masterclass to come from behind and defeat the Broncos 26-24 in a classic NRL grand final.

Hunting a hat-trick of premierships, the Panthers looked dead and buried when an Ezra Mam hat-trick took the Broncos out to a 24-8 lead – but Cleary stepped up in remarkable fashion.

Their hopes of fighting back took a huge hit when Jarome Luai, battling a shoulder injury, went to the bench one minute before Mam’s second try and did not return.

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Isaah Yeo copped a head knock after the lead had ballooned to 24-8 while Scott Sorensen was also sent for a head injury assessment, though both would later return.

Cleary set up a try for Moses Leota in the 63rd minute and five minutes later laid on a pass for Stephen Crichton, in his last game for Penrith before joining the Bulldogs, to cut the margin further when he outduelled Kotoni Staggs.

Then it was all Cleary on his own.

With just minutes remaining, the half-back shook off opposite number Adam Reynolds and scored almost untouched, converting his try for the match-winning lead.

“It honestly feels like a dream. The start of that second half was a nightmare. It was so bad,” he told Nine.

“We were down but never out. We keep fighting, that’s our mentality. There was so much fatigue. I just had to keep telling myself, just keep going, keep going. It would have been easy to give up then but we had to keep fighting. That’s what we do.”

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Cleary did not immediately judge his performance as the best of his career, calling himself out for his first half.

But there was little doubt he would receive the Clive Churchill Medal for a second time, as the Panthers began to toast becoming the first team since 1983 to win three consecutive premierships.

It is the first time the feat has been completed in the NRL era or under a salary cap.

“To our boys, it’s nothing but love,” Cleary said.

“We worked so hard for this and we’re still just getting started.”

Cleary shared an emotional embrace with father and coach Ivan on the field.

Father and son champions Ivan and Nathan Cleary celebrate their third straight premiership. Credit: Matt King/Getty Images

Penrith got on the board first when Mitch Kenny took full advantage of the Broncos’ wayward attempt at a short dropout.

Brisbane centre Herbie Farnworth got first hands to the ball but bizarrely tapped it back to no one in particular, a situation made worse when the ball bounced towards the try line and into Kenny’s hands.

Stephen Crichton took kicking duties and converted while Nathan Cleary had his left knee strapped.

The halfback was fine to continue and extended Penrith’s lead to 8-0 with a penalty goal on the half-hour mark.

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It looked for all money like the Panthers would take that margin into the break but a penalty against Spencer Leniu gave the Broncos a sniff.

Less than two minutes later Tyson Smoothy sent Tom Flegler, only recently back on the field after a head injury assessment, crashing through next to the post.

Some doubt hovered over whether the ball reached the line but the try was confirmed by the bunker – and Brisbane were officially back in what proved to be an epic contest.

The Broncos’ premiership drought will now stretch into an 18th season.

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