It was a Grand Final for the ages, capped off with a moment rivalling Kyle Feldt’s last minute try for the Cowboys in 2015, or Darren Albert’s miracle four-pointer in 1997.
The roar around Accor Stadium when Nathan Cleary crossed in the 76th minute to win the game for Penrith was deafening.
With the try and subsequent conversion, Cleary had not only brought the Panthers back from the dead to win the season decider but had put the icing on one of the most memorable 20 minute periods of his career.
There was only 18 minutes left on the clock when Cleary decided to take the game by both hands and deliver a performance that will be talked about for decades to come.
A smart play to set up a try for Moses Leota, a 40/20, a clever decision to force a penalty from a Brisbane drop-out and his own personal four-pointer were the highlights of his heroics.
Earlier, the Grand Final appeared gone.
With the game precariously placed at 8-6 to Penrith early in the second half, Ezra Mam stepped up in an unstoppable 10 minute period to put Brisbane into a Premiership-winning position.
Mam scored three straight tries – carving up the Penrith defence with blistering speed to give the Broncos a 24-8 lead.
It should have been enough.
“It’s just hard to get your head around what actually happened. It’s very disappointing,” Brisbane coach Kevin Walters said.
Somehow the Broncos went from a commanding lead with Mam’s name on the prestigious Clive Churchill Medal to a brutal collapse that will sting for the entire off-season.
Nobody could have seen Penrith’s comeback on the horizon.
Not when inspirational co-captain Isaah Yeo was forced from the field for a Head Injury Assessment and Jarome Luai’s shoulder finally gave way in the midst of Mam’s hat-trick. Scott Sorensen, too, was forced from the field after a head knock.
The momentum just shouldn’t have turned, and yet it did.
“I must say I was a little worried half-way through that second half,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said post-match.
“One thing I’d never doubt is these boys’ ability to keep fighting. There was still a long time to go and that was the important part. If they had have jumped to 24-8 with 15 to go I don’t think we would have come back.”
It had been a pulsating opening half to the Grand Final but nobody could have imagined what would unfold in the second 40 minutes.
Brisbane had talked up their big game experience all week despite it coming from other arenas like Origin, but nerves were evident in the opening period. They put themselves under pressure with a raft of errors, but Penrith struggled to capitalise.
The opening try came in the 17th minute when a short drop-out somehow bounced into the hands of Mitch Kenny who scored his first try of the season. With Cleary getting attention in back play, Stephen Crichton grabbed the conversion to give Penrith a 6-0 advantage.
It became 8-0 in the 29th minute when Cleary resumed the kicking duties and potted a penalty goal, but Brisbane started to get into the game more in the period closing in on half-time.
When Thomas Flegler barged his way over in the 38th minute, it felt like a reward for Brisbane’s entire season more than anything else – they had toiled and toiled, and finally got what they needed.
Ivan Cleary admitted post-game, the 8-0 lead should have been bigger.
“The first half, I reckon the way the season has been going… we probably would have been up by more than 8-0,” he said.
“But they just weren’t going away. When they got the ball back they were striking, they really backed themselves from all over the field and were a constant threat which took a lot of gas out of our team.
“We knew we had a battle at half-time. I don’t really know what to say after that.”
In the end it was the 29th minute penalty goal that proved the difference. Both teams scored four tries, and landed four conversions.
Dig deeper though and it is likely Penrith’s 97 per cent completion rate – freakish in any game, let alone a Grand Final – that ensured they were still within a chance of winning and sending the more than 81,000 fans at Accor Stadium into a state of disbelief.
Brisbane made 11 errors to Penrith’s one, likely having a impact on their fatigue late in the game.
For Penrith, the victory ensured their place in rugby league folklore – a third straight Premiership, the first team in the NRL era to achieve such a feat.
It was the perfect farewell for Stephen Crichton, Spencer Leniu and Jack Cogger.
Meanwhile, for the Broncos it’s a long off-season of pondering what could have been.
And for both clubs, a new rivalry – one that in the past has barely caused a ripple – has been born.
Penrith 26 (Tries: Mitch Kenny, Moses Leota, Stephen Crichton, Nathan Cleary. Goals: Nathan Cleary 4/4, Stephen Crichton 1/1) def Brisbane 24 (Tries: Ezra Mam 3, Thomas Flegler. Goals: Adam Reynolds 4/4). Crowd: 81,947.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.