Nathan Cleary inspires Penrith to historic NRL grand final three-peat

Nathan Cleary inspires Penrith to historic NRL grand final three-peat.

Nathan Cleary inspires Penrith to historic NRL grand final three-peat. Photo: AAP

Nathan Cleary has single-handedly willed Penrith to a historic three-peat  as NRL champions at Sydney’s Accor Stadium on Sunday night.

Seemingly out of the contest when trailing 24-8 with 24 minutes to go, Cleary’s class rose to the occasion when his side most needed it to clinch a thrilling 26-24 victory that will go down as the greatest comeback  in NRL grand final history.

The win meant the Panthers became the first team since 1983 to win three consecutive premierships.

Cleary, who won the Clive Churchill Medal as player of the final for a second time, said shortly after the win ‘‘It feels like a dream’’ after upholding his side’s resolve to ‘‘keep fighting’’ despite the fatigue.

The Broncos were seemingly storming to its first premiership in 17 years under the guidance of one-time Broncos five-eighth Kevin Walters with a bullocking, come-from-behind win, but that’s before Cleary turned around his team’s fortunes.

In a match of see-sawing fortunes, Penrith leapt to an 8-0 lead after a fortunate Mitch Kenny try and a Stephen Creighton penalty shortly before half-time,

But the Broncos gained a psychological boost before the break with a Thomas Flegler four-pointer under the posts.

The momentum continued with the Queensland side after the break as they blitzed the Penrith defence with three tries in less than 10 minutes to push the premiership three-peat out of reach for the Panthers.

Star halfback Nathan Cleary gave Penrith a glimmer of hope with his dummy pass tricking the Broncos defence, allowing him to burst through  and set up prop forward Moses Leota for an easy try.

The reduced the deficit to 10 points with about 17 minutes remaining and was followed shortly by a 40-20 that re-energised the defending champions.

The Broncos temporarily appeared to have weathered the storm, but a handling error near the halfway line resulted in Creighton powering over (and Cleary converted) to draw within four points with 11 minutes left.

The Penrith revival sparked memories of Melbourne Storm’s record comeback from 14 points down against St George Illawarra in 1999 as the Panthers pressured the Broncos tryline.

And it was NSW Blues champion Cleary who capitalised on the relentless pressure with a jinking run through a tired defence to draw the scores level, before converting his try for a 26-24 lead with two minutes remaining.

The victory also stakes Penrith’s claim as one of the all-time great rugby league sides, becoming the first team since Parramatta in 1983 to win three straight titles.

But it hasn’t been completed in the NRL era or under a salary cap.

Making 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.

“It honestly feels like a dream,” Cleary said.

“The start of that second half was a nightmare. It was so bad. 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.”

Cleary became the first player in history to win back-to-back Clive Churchill Medals.

“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.

“What a game by the champion halfback.”

-with AAP

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