Penrith have staked their claim as one of rugby league’s greatest ever sides, after Nathan Cleary engineered the biggest comeback in grand final history to beat Brisbane 26-24 and claim a third straight title.
Down 24-8 with 18 minutes to play at Accor Stadium on Sunday, Cleary set up two tries and scored one of his own in the dying minutes to give the Panthers the lead and earn himself a second Clive Churchill Medal.
The most crucial of those came with three minutes left when Cleary darted back through the middle of the field to score and then convert to take a two-point match-winning lead.
Penrith then held on for the final minutes, with Scott Sorensen intercepting a Reece Walsh offload to end Brisbane’s hopes of victory.
The win surpasses Melbourne’s comeback from 14 points down against St George Illawarra in 1999 as the biggest-ever in a decider.
Penrith are the eighth team in history to win three straight premierships, and the first since Parramatta in 1983.
But their victory is the first in the NRL-era or under a salary cap.
“There was that great Parramatta side, but that wasn’t the NRL-era either,” coach Ivan Cleary said.
“But things were different, it was just pretty much the Sydney comp back then. And I say that without trying to take anything away from what they did.
“We’re not here to try and explain where we sit in history. I think we will be able to reflect in the next few days, it’s a pretty remarkable achievement.
“It’s totally surreal. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Making Nathan Cleary’s effort even more remarkable was that he did it without five-eighth Jarome Luai, who succumbed to a shoulder injury with 28 minutes to play.
Penrith looked shot early in the second half when Ezra Mam scored three tries in the space of 10 minutes to take Brisbane from 8-6 down to a 24-8 lead.
All three tries came from a distance, with Mam stepping past Lindsay Smith and Izack Tago for his first and Isaah Yeo and Cleary for his next.
Walsh then inserted himself into the game, stepping past Cleary, fending off Tago and putting Mam over for his hat-trick.
But after his two defensive lapses, Cleary made up for it as he masterminded a Penrith fightback.
With 18 minutes to play, Cleary stepped through the Broncos’ line and put Moses Leota over, reducing the margin to 10.
From the next set, he produced a pinpoint perfect third-tackle 40-20, before sending Stephen Crichton over moments later following a Pat Carrigan error.
“We were just trying to stop the flood at the time,” Nathan Cleary said.
“Once we got one, it turned into two, and then before I know it I look up at the clock and it’s 10 minutes left and we’re down by four.
“The belief starts to kick in on the inside. We’ve got the momentum. We’re a big chance here.
“I think my 20 minutes before that was close to the worst I have ever played. It was nice to finish on a high.”
Then, just as Brisbane looked set to hold on, Cleary stepped through a broken defensive line to give the Panthers their fifth title and by far their most miraculous.
“I’m trying to think of a better halfback performance,” league great Andrew Johns said on Nine.
“He willed this team over.
“That performance by Nathan Cleary in the last 20 minutes of that game, is without doubt the best performance by a halfback in a grand final.”
Penrith had earlier dominated the first half, but only had an 8-6 interval lead to show for it when Thomas Flegler crashed over for Brisbane right on halftime.
Despite their charge, the loss means the Broncos’ premiership drought will extend into a least an 18th season.
“Sometimes the football gods just take things away from you and they did that tonight for us,” Broncos coach Kevin Walters said.
“It just wasn’t meant to be tonight. I can’t ask for anything from our players.”