The 2023 NRL premiership has concluded with one of the greatest games of all time – a seesawing classic dripping with drama, courage, genius, instantly iconic individual displays and perhaps the finest big-game comeback ever witnessed.
Here’s the immediate takeaways from a contest that will be studied by rugby league scholars for centuries.
One of the grandest
The Holy Trinity of the greatest grand finals of the televised era – 1989, 1997 (ARL) and 2015 – must now make room for the supreme Penrith Panthers’ 26-24 triumph over a valiant Brisbane Broncos on the mantle of the best-ever premiership deciders.
The State of Origin-like intensity of the opening minutes barely abated until the fulltime whistle, the Broncos backing up their slew of first-half errors – and a bizarre opening try to the Panthers – with titanic goal-line defence and a stirring late strike from Thomas Flegler to trail just 8-6 at the break.
The Broncos were steaming towards one of the great revivals in a premiership decider courtesy of a face-melting hat-trick flurry from five-eighth Ezra Mam…until falling victim to the biggest comeback in grand final history.
Nathan Cleary flicked the switch and hauled the Panthers back from 24-8 down with 18 minutes on the clock in arguably the most clutch display the premiership has ever seen, laying on two tries then scoring the match-winner with just over three minutes left.
But the scoring highlights don’t paint the full picture of a bona fide classic: heroic moments, agonising mistakes, surprise heroes, myriad plot twists, spite and flare-ups, the contrast of euphoria and heartbreak.
Rugby league remains undefeated.
The overwhelming trend of low-scoring grand finals went out the window, with the total points line of 38.5 falling by the wayside in the equal-second-highest scoring decider of the compulsory grand final era.
In a finals series blighted by refereeing howlers, Adam Gee’s performance with the whistle in his first grand final was superb. Perhaps he was fortunate to not be dished up any flashpoint 50-50 moments to adjudicate on, but he allowed the game to flow without ignoring the rulebook and contributed hugely to the spectacle.
Meanwhile, if the earliest odds an indication, these teams could be set for another epic grand final duel in 2024: Penrith has been installed as the $3.75 favourite for the 2024 NRL crown, just ahead of Brisbane ($4.25).
Souths ($8.00), Melbourne ($9.00), Sydney Roosters ($11), North Queensland ($15), the Warriors ($21), Cronulla, Parramatta and Newcastle (all $21) are all playing catch-up.
Cometh the hour, cometh the Mam…
It is just so cruel that Ezra Mam’s incendiary 10-minute, three-try burst to swing the momentum, seemingly irreversibly, Brisbane’s way was not coupled with a premiership ring – and an almost certain Clive Churchill Medal.
But the will-o’-the-wisp Broncos five-eighth’s performance has unequivocally earned a place in grand final folklore.
Mam’s first try alone deserves a place alongside Nathan Blacklock’s (1999), Stacey Jones’ (2002) and Fuifui Moimoi’s (2009) – ironically also in losing sides – as the finest solo efforts in a grand final.
The 20-year-old veteran of 38 NRL games’ second was another breathtaking piece of individual brilliance, while he backed up Reece Walsh’s belated explosion into the contest to bag a third.
Mam’s hat-trick was just the third in a grand final in the past 62 years, while he also broke the premiership record for the most tries in a season by a five-eighth by taking his tally to 19.
The Goodna Eagles junior (and $23 best-on-ground outsider) was set to break the record of another Indigenous No.6 named Greg Inglis as the youngest Churchill Medal winner ever…but a modern master (and the $3.50 favourite) had other ideas.
…and the Man
No player has stepped up with so many big-time plays when trailing in a grand final as Nathan Cleary did to lift the Panthers out of a seemingly hopeless situation with less than 20 minutes left and a maroon-and-gold tidal wave of momentum flowing against them.
The catalogue of mind-blowing clutch moments he produced down the stretch would have been extraordinary enough in any game, let alone a grand final, and was rendered even more remarkable after his disastrous start to the second half.
Cleary was left clutching at air where Mam and Walsh used to be as the Broncos rattled up three tries in 10 minutes and a 16-point lead. Critics were salivating over the prospect of drawing comparisons with his Origin failures.
The Panthers co-captain kept his head, though, and swung the match with a Thurston-esque show-and-go on the Broncos’ 40-metre line to send rampaging Moses Leota over under the posts.
A stunning fourth-tackle 40/20 in the ensuing set put the defending champs right on the front foot, before Cleary opened up the opportunity for Stephen Crichton to go over out wide – and buried a tough conversion to cut the deficit to four points.
Then the coup de grace, a 77th-minute solo dash through several Broncos defenders that will take its place alongside ‘Chicka’ Ferguson’s hot-stepping try in ’89, Andrew Johns’ blindside dart to set up Darren Albert in ’97 and Michael Morgan’s arcing run to put Kyle Feldt over in ’15.
The second leg of the only other two previous Churchill Medal double-ups – Bradley Clyde in 1991 and Billy Slater in 2017 – were highly contentious.
But there could be no doubt about Cleary’s second best-on-ground in a grand final honour, cementing his legend status at just 25 years of age.
Broncos’ bravery and brilliance not quite enough
As the immediate sting of a shattering grand final defeat subsides, the Broncos can take a sliver of solace from the reality that they were the most gallant runners-up to set foot on rugby league’s biggest stage.
With nerves apparently playing a role, they were plagued by errors in the first half (and only finished with a 71 percent completion rate) yet only conceded one try from a botched short kick-off thanks to a monumental defensive effort.
Brisbane ground its way back into the contest and struck a massive blow through Thomas Flegler’s gutsy try just before the break.
The sizzling offence that has characterised the Broncos’ breakout campaign unlocked one of the most miserly defensive units the game has known with Mam and Walsh igniting – and one of the great grand final turnarounds and upsets was in their grasp.
But Kevin Walters’ charges couldn’t contain Cleary as the clock wound down, destined to be consigned to the annals of grand final hard-luck stories.
Adam Reynolds was clearly hampered by a groin injury setback late in the first half, while man-of-the-moment Walsh arguably finished on the debit side despite some searing highlights.
Heroes abounded: Mam sparkled; Jesse Arthars was inspirational on the flank; Herbie Farnworth surged for a team-high 185 metres in his last game for the club; Payne Haas and Flegler took the fight to James Fisher-Harris and Leota; Kobe Hetherington’s late try-saver was minutes away from a place in folklore.
Sport remains the great leveller. Brisbane won all six grand finals in its first 19 seasons in existence. In the 17 years since, the Broncos’ two appearances in the big dance have resulted in two of code’s most heart-breaking losses.
But the pieces are in place for another golden era for the club, provided the Broncos can turn a summer of what-might-have-been lament into a driving force.
Panthers plant place in premiership pantheon
A win over any description would have sealed Penrith’s status as one of the all-time great teams and the best of the NRL era – the first three-time premiers for 40 years.
Pulling off the biggest comeback in grand final history only added to the Panthers’ aura and the narrative of a remarkable dynasty.
A failure to turn their first-half dominance into a decent lead and a series of defensive lapses that left them 16 points in arrears means it was far from the usually clinical and relentless Panthers’ best performance.
But the Cleary-led comeback was out of this world, as was their composure as Jarome Luai exited and Isaah Yeo went off for an HIA while the Panthers were striving to find an air pocket underneath a Broncos avalanche in the second stanza.
Incredibly, the Panthers finished with 37 completions from 38 sets.
Their No.7 was the obvious, deserving headliner – like nothing we have ever seen from an individual when the chips were down in a big game. He wasn’t the only Panther to lift their level when it mattered, though.
A second straight Churchill Medal wouldn’t have looked out of place around Dylan Edwards’ neck, the custodian outshining the ultra-hyped Walsh with over 300 running metres from 27 carries.
Grand final specialist Stephen Crichton conjured several crucial plays on both sides of the ball, aside from becoming the first player since St George’s Johnny King (1960-65) to score a try in four straight deciders.
JFH and Leota were immense. Mitch Kenny and Liam Martin were 80-minute terriers. Jack Cogger again stepped in for Luai and helped the Panthers regain momentum.
How much further can this team go? Crichton’s departure will hurt and the salary-cap squeeze continues to make it harder to keep this roster together.
But the Panthers’ unshakeable drive makes them a more formidable opponent with each passing premiership – and the motivation to achieve the first four-peat since the Dragons’ 1956-66 ‘Never Before, Never Again’ run suggests this juggernaut won’t be slowing down anytime soon.